The Help represents a pitiful lack of progress, and that’s hardly an indictment of the ways its characters and events are depicted on screen. This is an affable, predominantly inoffensive bit of goes-down-easy middlebrow fare, whose crimes are mainly those of uninspired screenwriting technique (underwritten roles, conveniently sidestepped conflicts). Yet, the film’s inherent iconography incited a storm of knee-jerk disgust from cynics and ax-grinders, who took to Twitter with a litany of rants about Mammies, magical negroes and fried chicken. A counterattack of support for the film soon followed. The subject of race in the movies will always get people talking, but that this minimally provocative mainstream fluff was met with such exhaustive, tempestuous discourse feels culturally puerile, like tamed dogs fending off wolves on the hunt for the next Birth of a Nation. Now, the discussion of a movie that might have just as well come and gone with the rest of August’s releases has spilled over into the Oscar race, an arena in which there is, in fact, discussion to be had.
If people are looking for something to complain about, a better target would be the preposterously thriving Oscar whiteout, which last year led to the favoring of grotesque turns from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo over every incredible performance in For Colored Girls. This year, the only two black performers poised to be honored with nominations are those who play maids, a fact that’s far more contemptible than anything Tate Taylor presents in The Help. And the meager nomination tally won’t merely be a fault of the Academy, either, as there certainly wasn’t a wealth of baity work available for people of color this year, a year in which the only high-profile part that recent Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe can boast is, yes, a maid—in a Brett Ratner movie.
None of this is to say that the great Viola Davis isn’t wholly deserving of recognition for what she brings to her role as Aibileen Clark. Like Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn and Michael Fassbender in Shame, Davis fills her character with enormous amounts of depth and nuance that weren’t there to start with. Unbound by script limitations, Davis lets you watch a whole woman take shape during Aibileen’s quiet conversations with Skeeter (Emma Stone), an achievement primarily comprised of body language and richly intuitive facial expressions. It’s a bit of an insult that the film’s marketing team is pretending that forced parallel narratives and a tacked-on resolution are sufficient grounds for campaigning Davis for Best Actress, but it’s unlikely anyone will frown upon her getting the nod.
Less warranted will be the Supporting Actress nomination for Octavia Spencer, whose performance, though a highly entertaining breakthrough, is the sort of hammy, stereotypical, fingers-snapped-in-a-Z-formation stuff whose attention is less earned than it is inevitable. A better move in the same category would be the rewarding of Jessica Chastain, whose wildly infectious portrayal of the bubbly airhead Celia Foote presents a fine opportunity to celebrate a rare, fascinating and rapidly compiled body of work. In all likelihood, it will also be the only opportunity, as Chastain isn’t showcased in The Tree of Life, and her other films, The Debt, Take Shelter and Texas Killing Fields, won’t generate the necessary support. What will, most likely, is The Help’s bid for Best Picture, making it a top-race contender whose only conceivable shot for a non-acting nomination lies in the Best Original Song category, where Mary J. Blige’s end-credits ballad, “The Living Proof” will probably compete.
In terms of wins, some pundits are now predicting that Davis could emerge victorious on Oscar night, making Meryl Streep a 15-time loser and snatching the much-buzzed “career-capping” honor from presumed candidate Glenn Close. Ever gracious, Davis would surely accept such an award with equal parts humility and pride, seeing it as kudos for a role she approached with the same humanity and conviction she would any other. But in this hypothetical scenario, given that such an extraordinary actress had to play a cleaning lady to get proper respect, it’s possible that the trophy might feel, if only the littlest bit, like a slice of shit pie.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Actress, Viola Davis; Best Supporting Actress, Octavia Spencer.
Possibilities: Best Supporting Actress, Jessica Chastain.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: None.