Why is it that so many of our brightest film critics wander into the practice of reviewing the existence of a movie and not its elements?
The Help, of all summer movies, has become a flashpoint. And there is plenty to criticize in the film. However… most of the negative reviews I have read are not really about the qualities of the film, but about whether a movie with 1960s southern racism as a theme should be allowed to be anything but gritty and bloody and full of rage.
The funniest thing, to me, about this attitude is that films from other countries that subtextualize oppression because the national politics of those countries don’t allow open public discussion of the issues are praised to high heavens by the same critics as the most important films of the years virtually every year.
Obviously, you can discuss race in America cinema. But not unlike political oppression, our nation’s arts suffer from popularity oppression. In other words, if you want to make a serious movie about race, great… but don’t expect too many people to see it.
I argued, back then, that Precious inspired an unintentionally racist reaction in some white audiences, who felt the movie was plumbing the depth of the “real” black experience. “Oh… those black people have it so hard. You know, that’s how they live.” Is that a better form of racial cinema than The Help‘s simple and yes, simplistic morality tale?
More importantly, should my feeling about how that film was engaged with by white seniors (see: The Academy) discount the emotional experience that many people who never realized that some people (a small percentage of a small percentage of a small percentage) actually do live in that kind of pain and squalor?
And should a critic ripping into The Help today because we “should be past this kind of light view of racial history” discount the millions of people who are going to enjoy the morality tale of this film and think, at least a little, about our own views of race in the process?
When asked about Precious, however I felt about it, I suggested that people see it for themselves. I might offer up some concerns. But still, make up your own mind. The Help is less of a challenge, but still I would tell anyone, “If the ads or the trailer or the book make you interested in seeing it… you should see it. And if you think it shouldn’t have been made, don’t go.”
There is a legitimate discussion to be had about how portrayals of serious issues in films can be seen. But I am quite sure that there are no “answers.”
It is not really a stretch to see Transformers: Dark of the Moon as a film that lingers in the subtext of race, WWII-inspired action-dramas, and especially the films where a small band of scary men come together to protect a “native” village from some other form of greater organized terror. But many critics simply refuse to see that film as anything more than cynical money-grabbing ugly clanging metal not worth actually thinking about.
The stories of heroes and villains are as simple and a complex as drawings on the sides of caves and $300 million Jim Cameron movies.
I have quoted it so many times that I have forgotten what director said it, but ‘Give me my fucking premise” is, it seems to me, a basic responsibility of professional film criticism. But far too often, critics seem like they are playing whack-a-mole instead of being film critics. Or conversely, becoming publicists. Films must either be destroyed and don’t deserve to be seen or audiences should overlook all the flaws and go because it’s good for them and good for Movie City if these kinds of films are embraced commercially.
Personally, if every person who saw The Help was handed a free copy of The Interrupters – a movie steeped in race that really isn’t about race – and watched it, the world would be a better place. One is a bon bon and one is a five-course meal.
But I am supposed to be embarrassed because I am okay with The Help, appreciate some of the performances, and think it will be a really happy experience for a large swath of the moviegoing audience? Ridiculous. It’s not the melodramatic fluff that is Steel Magnolias. But is is Fried Green Tomatoes. Kathy Bates intentionally smashing into some obnoxious girl’s car because she “has better insurance,” this driving away relieved to have made a stand… that’s what you’ll get in The Help.
Moreover, these attacks on principle miss the point of The Help altogether. Those critics were too busy rolling their eyes over the bridge club scenes and the frilly dresses. It’s a story about individuals taking action, doing small things, being brave in the face of boogeymen, and moving forward because enough is enough. It’s not monks being slaughtered in the streets of Burma. It’s not even The March on Washington. it’s small voices choosing to speak out, wanting to change things, wanting the world to be better, one voice at a time.
And if anyone should understand that, it’s movie critics.
Or maybe they understand all too well.