I saw this a few days ago and decided to put off pontificating on it for a while to give my thoughts a while to settle so I could perhaps clearly express myself. I am hoping that enough time has passed so that is the case.
I don't normally watch this type of movie which is clearly in the 'chick flick' genre, but my wife wanted to watch something with me and I acquiesced. Flicking through the channels, I found some spring training baseball, but then realized it was the Orioles so that was out. Then 'The Help' was just starting and I remembered it was something that was supposed to be mildly entertaining. My wife had already seen it but thought it would be good to see again. I somehow missed it when it came out in 2011, and again when it made the rental and pay-per-view circuit. I also recalled that it won some major award (one Academy Award), so I went along.
So I began watching it, half asleep and half amused. I mean it had everything that you would expect in a typical chick flick: A women who had lost her son to a tragic incident, a feisty and funny lady, and various women trying to good do in the face of adversity. All the right stuff but a poignant love story. However, the longer I watched it, the more uncomfortable I became. It took me a few days to come to the understanding that I was disturbed by how it showed a caricature of racism in the south.
In a nutshell, the mechanisms it used to depict racism rang hollow to me. I have no doubt that the incidents noted at some point happened somewhere at sometime in the South. What bothered me is how they were all packaged together, occurring at the same time and place, resulting a book effectively ghostwritten for the maids by the sympathetic white lady. The book is then read by the society women who are shocked to see their own racism reflected back at them. The contrived implication being this was representative and typical of most suburbs of the south at the time.
Now I am admittedly no expert on racism. I came of age in the south during the 70s, so perhaps I was a bit late to really see the south's true racist roots as depicted in the movie since they occurred 10 years before I reached a minimum age of reason and 200 miles south of where I grew up. But perhaps not. Full disclosure here - my mother never had a maid - ever.
While I did not consort with the beer and pickup kids, I did hang out with a civil war re-enactor, an erstwhile country musician or two, and a few hunting types (but thank god no duck hunters). I had one or two black friends in high school, but the demographics there were such that we did not have too many people of color going to our school until the advent of busing. While we were 'lilly white', we didn't really think of the people around us in terms skin color. When we did think about it at all, it was more of an economic awareness than a melanin issue. While I can't claim to be an expert on black and white issues in the south, I feel I do have a good idea of what it was like to be lower to middle class and white in the early seventies in the south, with an awareness of most of the things (good and bad) going on around me.
I thus compared the south as depicted in the movie against the south I grew up in. On the surface it was all there. The presumption of southern gentility, the accents, the ever present overshadowing of a mostly agrarian society gone partially industrial. What I could not resolve and ultimately found offensive was that there were only two white people (women) in the film that did not have a lack of moral character when it came to respect for their fellow (black) human beings, and one of those had the sexual morals of an alley cat. There were no depictions of any white men with a modicum of decency in race relations or any other human endeavor.
This is not the south that I know, and I find it repugnant to represent it in such a way. If a film was made that similarly unfairly displayed black men as always craven manipulative bastards and black women as mostly surface, petty, and vindictive in the face of gently laboring white men and long suffering but noble white women, I don't believe anyone would describe it as ""Appealing, entertaining, touching" or "a raucous rib-tickler". It is exceedingly sad this film was lionized in just those terms.
I am aware that by merely criticizing the film on this basis, I will raise the ire of those who believe that rejecting it's unfair representation of southerns is paramount to wearing a sheet and hanging nooses in my yard. I suppose that by that measure they will self identify as racist. In fact, this film seems predicated on the notion that any such criticism is unthinkable. That is not an isolated mindset. Consider this article on fear of white racist branding for example and the fury it raised in the PC establishment. I fear this Obama 'post-racial' America is just a different side of a very ugly coin.