As anyone who's traveled outside of Mississippi knows, racism is everywhere. Yes, America has made great progress in race relations, but if you only watch Hollywood crafted media, one may assume it only existed in the deep south, pre-1974.
The Help attempts to chronicle the blatant prejudice that many black people endured during the civil rights movement, and does it adequately, but fails in many respects. It's the story of a local reporter, who decides to tell the story of African-American maids who are treated as second class citizens in their work and personal life, but the only difference between their careers and the ones of slaves is that their paid a barely livable wage.
In an attempt to finally break free of the bondage of Jim Crow and those who adhere to it's philosophy, the maids bravely tell their sad tales of having to use separate bathrooms at their employers, endure cold and often juvenile taunts, and being mistreated in every way imaginable. It's an inspiring story of the power of the pen and it's ability to change our perceptions.
As moving as the story should be, the film is bogged down with so many faults it's almost difficult to list them all. The real drag are the subplots, which are at best unnecessary, and at worst distracting. A forced romantic subplot tells us nothing about any of the characters and a heartfelt, but anti-climatic tale of a maid who stole a ring to pay for her son's education took me out of the film.
The real issue I had was not the Hallmark-ish speeches delivered every five minutes, but the antagonists, which can make or break a film. In The Help, the racist maid employers are so one dimensional that one can only imagine early 60s housewives as having no other emotion or life goal than to oppress black people. They were just evil for the sake of it, and had absolutely no depth. It's as if they were perpetuating stereotypes while at the same time crushing others.
The film does have it's merits, like most overrated films. The acting by the leads is at times remarkable, and for that I would recommend it alone, and the cinematography makes the city of Jackson as picturesque as a Thomas Kincaid painting. And really, that's the target audience of this film, people who enjoy their message films to be sanitary and unchallenged, and in that it succeeds in spades. Perhaps it is a good idea to see such content, if only to remind us that we sometimes need to see issues in such black and white contrast in order to understand the grey.
"As in many reductive period pieces, there are no real characters here, just archetypes, namely reactionary cretins and sensitive souls who anticipate modern attitudes." - Ben Sachs