So the Entertainment Weekly in my bathroom right now has a cover article on The Help that goes into excruciating detail about why it really is an okay movie and a good story and you should go see it. Granted, they do give a sidebar for opposing opinion, in really fine print. But that little afterthought does not much at all to combat the main story, full of photos of the movie’s stars laughing and cuddling with copies of the book.
I’m on record as having disliked the original book and not wanting to see the movie. If anything, the EW article increases my desire to avoid the film.
Because they list upfront a few of the more facile objections to the book and then dismiss them as fluff and nonsense. The characters are a stereotype? Nonsense! says one of the movie’s black stars, who goes on to say she’s played black female doctors who aren’t as well-drawn as the maid characters in the story. [Stop and think about that. About the implicit hierarchy–doctors are better than maids–and tell me this whole story doesn’t perpetuate dangerous social archetypes.] The novel’s author was sued by a woman who claims her likeness was misappropriated? Nonsense! says the author, who says she doesn’t know the woman. As if she’d admit to plagiarising a person’s life details in an article designed to sell more copies of her book and tickets to the movie based upon it.
SPOILER TO BOOK AND MOVIE COMING UP
The story in the book (which is likely altered somewhat for the screen) centers on three black women who work as maids and three white women who have varying relationships with them. There are secondary and tertiary characters of both races who serve as plot-props; stereotypes acting stereotypically to advance the story, mostly as mustache-twirling villains. In the key joke of the novel, one of the main maid characters makes a chocolate pie for a mustache-twirling white boss and includes some of her own feces in the batter.
It’s supposed to be a funny story and at the point in the book the villain has been so despicable it is supposed to be a satisfying revenge. It’s also supposed to be a depiction of how the oppressed maids are finding the courage to fight back.
In actuality it’s simply a retelling of the Food Contamination Propaganda, which is a cousin to Blood Libel. Whoever the ‘evildoer’ in question is, accusing them of food contamination–overt or accidental–is a way to exploit the audience’s innate fears of illness and disease and further cast the foreigner at the center of your myth in a nefarious light. There are hundreds of urban myths surrounding this–the Chinese who cook the family pet, the stoned babysitter who microwaves an infant for potroast, the faceless corporation who puts mucous in its condiments. And of course the Jews who poison wells and bake the blood of babies into communion wafers. NONE of these stories are designed to show those folks in a favourable light.
By having a food contamination anecdote as a central element of its story–so fundamental to the plot that the actresses in the EW article are shot eating an apple pie in homage to the joke–it strikes me that there is no way this story can be anything other than a continuation of the race propaganda of the South, wrapped in a deceptively cuddly exterior.
That’s my main problem with The Help. It puts forth the same ideas responsible for centuries of cruelty but acts like it’s doing some sort of cultural favour.