This is where the rubber meets the road at awards season. One of the most instructive case studies on the Oscars comes from 1989, the year that Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing, which is arguably the best and certainly one of the most provocative films to tackle the topic of race in America. It’s a film as loaded as its subject, more or less designed to breach comfort zones and get the audience debating. The Academy passed it over for a Best Picture nomination, and instead gave the top prize to a movie where an old white lady teaches Morgan Freeman to read. The point is a cynical but unshakeable indication that the Academy prefers to tackle Important Issues like race only with safe, palliative reassurances—and from the primary perspective of a white protagonist.
All of which brings us, 22 years later, to The Help, which became a sleeper hit (over $150 million at the box office), a Best Picture nominee, and—not for the right reason—a topical lightning rod about how race is handled in American popular culture. This is the sort of slick, polished product that moves briskly and has engaging stars, but completely falls apart if you think about how honestly it approaches its own goals. This is the civil rights era as a low-calorie soap opera, with TV production values, a glossy and sterile visual palette, forced caricatures, colloquial affectations, period details as kitsch, and more melodramatic subplots than it can possibly sustain. (146 minutes!). And, for that matter, it never actually confronts racism—not simply because it glosses over the real violent ugliness of the subject, but because it portrays racism as something from a bygone era, perpetrated by cartoonishly wicked people, rather than as a complex societal issue that can even be seen in otherwise upstanding human beings. And when it’s not busy reassuring you about racism, it’s selling out its stated feminist aims, or getting a laugh from a shot of a little girl on the toilet. This is one of the worst Best Picture nominees I’ve ever seen, and it’s troubling, if not downright depressing, that such a tacky treatment of such serious subjects is what the Academy would like to single out as some of the year’s most important work.