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.