The more things stay the same, the more they stay the same: Tate Taylor’s The Help makes sure of that. Twenty-two years after Driving Miss Daisy and Glory won a combined seven Academy Awards, the nobility of black Americans, as seen through the eyes of white friends (read: employers and jailers), remains box-office catnip in the hands of slick screenwriters and directors who ensure that audiences everywhere can feel good about being good, being on the correct side of history, without realizing that having their moral rectitude affirmed ultimately comes down to being able to differentiate between Good Christian Behavior and Really, Really, Really Shitty Behavior. Moviegoers can look at a movie like The Help and say to themselves, or their family, “America really used to be like that, back then. Those were different times.” The hidden message—hidden in plain sight, anyway—of The Help, Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, and so on is “Gee, those black people sure were lucky to have had that one white person cross the race barrier and do what’s right.” Meanwhile, the black men and women of these films are too busy representing stoic nobility, smiling through their tears, or parceling out homespun good sense. The stinging irony, of course, is that these films are also telling us “They need us,” i.e. that the primitive Other is responsible for the status quo, and it’s up to some plucky, resourceful member of the power elite to catalyze change.
The Help is a film that rivals a toddler’s picture book in its lack of ambiguity regarding good guys and bad guys (Bryce Dallas Howard does everything but twirl a mustache), and it’s buried in a suffocating avalanche of phony self-congratulation. The nadir comes in a flashback that reveals how Skeeter’s mother, while Skeeter was away at school, was pressured (like Mel Gibson’s Pontius Pilate) into firing the family’s doddering but spiritually pure maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson). In essence telling the story of the Reluctant White Executioner from The Green Mile in nine minutes flat, this miniature train wreck of bullshit culminates in Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney) seeing Constantine to the door, a moment that seems to happen in slow motion, and we see Janney’s mask of stern discipline begin to soften in guilt and pity, only to be reminded to Push Those Feelings Way Down by the affirmative, sated glare of her racist claque.
The fact that 2011 also brought us the perfection of Janney’s performance as an accident victim in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, and Jessica Chastain had her breakthrough role as a firecracker Southern belle with a hidden sadness in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (a vision of the American South that’s like a Jonas Mekas sprawl compared to The Help) only serves to make Taylor’s film that much sadder. And as if to wink at its own self-congratulation, there’s a scene near the end of the film in which the movie simply applauds itself. Barely justified by the story’s trajectory, the applause scene is hardly the only one in movie history to ring a Pavlovian bell for audiences, but then again, it’s been a while since a movie has been so bland and so flagrantly cunning at the same time.
Appropriate for a movie that most American audiences probably saw digitally projected, The Help on Blu-ray is as crisp as a machine-tooled DLP presentation. If anything, the color palette is too intense by half, though that was probably a decision that was made in postproduction. The transfer is technically ideal in the sense that there's nothing wrong with it, but the movie, which was shot on 35mm, has such a calculated have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too balance between textured verisimilitude and vivid, Disney-fied brights that your appreciation of the visual scheme will depend on how good you feel about the movie as a whole. The sound mix is solid, though there isn't much to challenge the upper limits, except a few scenes of diegetic music and a Bryce Dallas Howard freak-out or two.
A little more than table scraps, including the usual deleted scenes and making-of featurette. There's also a Mary J. Blige music video and a second featurette called "In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi," in case you don't feel congratulated enough by the movie itself.
Disney ably delivers a machine-tooled Blu-ray presentation of The Help, a delicious confection about the Southern matriarchy, set against the burgeoning civil rights movement, with a secret ingredient: shit.