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Tate Taylor’s “The Help”

A slick adaptation prompts critics to set it next to past cinematic depictions of the civil rights movement.

"The civil-rights movement might have ended segregation and beat back centuries of slavery and oppression, but let's save a slow clap for well-meaning white folks with the moral courage to put themselves at the center of the narrative," begins Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "Based on the bestest-seller by Kathryn Stockett, The Help joins Glory, Cry Freedom, Driving Miss Daisy, and many other noble adaptations in filtering the black experience through the white experience, but credit Stockett (and the film) for conceiving a sneaky end-around. As a progressive-minded college graduate in small-town Mississippi in 1963, Emma Stone goes about collecting testimonials for a book about the experiences of African-American maids. So, you see, it's really their book — she's merely the conduit through which their harrowing, touching stories can be told. But in reality, it's her book and her stories, and the central conceit is just some literary flim-flammery to convince readers — and now audiences — of an authenticity that isn't remotely in evidence."

"A larger problem for anyone interested in the true social drama of the era," finds Nelson George in the New York Times, "is that the film's candy-coated cinematography and anachronistic super-skinny Southern belles are part of a strategy that buffers viewers from the era's violence. The maids who tell Skeeter [Stone] their stories speak of the risks they are taking, but the sense of physical danger that hovered over the civil rights movement is mostly absent."

George's piece is a survey of films that have dealt with the movement and his bottom line is that "with Eyes on the Prize as the benchmark, documentaries have provided far superior cinematic experiences."

As for the cinematic experience at hand, The Help, Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies seems to sum up the consensus: "Noble as the film's intentions may be, its default method of communicating with its potential audience is to patronize it, to serve up one entertaining diversion or other whenever its story line threatens to turn a corner into the valley of The Real."

"The talents wasted in the cast include Sissy Spacek and Viola Davis," notes Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader.

More from Manohla Dargis (NYT), David Denby (New Yorker), David Edelstein (New York), Kimberley Jones (Austin Chronicle, 2.5/5), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Katherine Long (Stranger), Karina Longworth (Voice), Violet Lucca (L), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 2.5/4), Andrew Schenker (Slant, 1/4), Dana Stevens (Slate), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 2/5), Sara Maria Vizcarrondo (Boxoffice, 2/5) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 8.5/10). Kyle Ryan interviews Stone for the AV Club.

Update: "Since receiving a grant from The Andrew W Mellon Foundation in April 2011, Washington University has been in the process of preserving the acetate-based film used in Eyes on the Prize." Here's more background on the whys and hows of the restoration:


Updates, 8/20: "It seems likely that no film since Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing has gotten so many moviegoers talking about the history of race and racism in America as has this summer's hit The Help," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "The contrast between the two is instructive, if not alarming. Lee's film was set in its own present tense, on the racially polarized streets of late-1980s Brooklyn, NY. Taylor's film, for all its evident strengths, is a candy-colored and wildly ahistorical voyage into the Jim Crow past, a mashup of Steel Magnolias, Mad Men and Mississippi Burning, with the fire confined to the kitchen." He then presents an "attempt to classify the major memes and themes in the divided critical response to The Help, and to offer supporting arguments from some of the film's most vehement lovers and haters in the media. Even if The Help is about life in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s — and I have my doubts that it's really about that — the story of the reactions it produces is a story of 2011, when Jim Crow is dead and buried and a black man lives in the White House, but when we may not have come quite as far as we like to think."

Listening. Slate's Culture Gabfest has the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris on to discuss his review during its first segment.

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Somewhere, Stanley Kramer is applauding. It reminds me of the well-intentioned film that turns hard truth into a bland gruel for an audience that “needs” to feel better about a painful past.

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