The most interesting thing I noticed about my reaction to The Help was how it made me feel both good and bad about humanity. It showed just how petty, cruel, and demeaning humans can be to each other; and it also showed the deep levels of courage and compassion we can reach in the face of uncertainty and violence.
What I did not expect was the humor. I found the three protagonists to be funny and likable. And the way the movie pokes fun at the equally unlikable “antagonist” gets very close to those 80s comedies like Stripes or Private Benjamin, where embarrassing the antagonist becomes a running theme in the movie.
And this leads to my one criticism of the film: It feels too safe. Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Help quite a bit. But I would have liked it more if it had felt more real. I could never shake the feeling that we were safe within the world of the Hollywood “feel good” movie, so it never felt like the characters were in any real jeopardy.
It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to protect us from the harsh realities of the world. All of the violence in the movie happens off-screen. Minny’s beatings, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, the local murder of a black man. We hear about it, but never experience it. It’s a little patronizing, in the way that parents think they can protect their children.
In the movie’s defense, the story is told from the perspective (for the most part) of a particular character. And the way we get news about things is pretty much how she gets the news—we hear about it from other characters, we catch tidbits on television as we move through the room. Also, the focus of the movie is not on the explicit violence that was committed during the 60s, but the implicit violence in the racist laws and attitudes of the South.
But it is always strange to me when Hollywood takes on a very real and emotional subject but handles those emotions with the typical Hollywood artificiality. Although I do enthusiastically recommend The Help, I think it would have been much stronger if we the audience could have felt even just a little bit of the fear and uncertainty these characters must have felt when they literally risked their lives to tell their stories.