by Coop Cooper
Energized by the power and fantastic performances of “The Help,” this weekend I ventured online to see what my fellow American movie critics thought. The website Rottentomatoes.com averages the positive and negative reviews from critics of major print publications and assigns a percentage value. Anything under 60% is considered “rotten” and anything over that number is deemed “fresh.” While “The Help” gained a respectable 73% average, compared to the averages of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” (76%), Captain America: The First Avenger” (79%) and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (82%), its average seemed rather low. Considering the film’s box office and awards potential, I wondered where most of the negativity was coming from.
As I explored the reviews, I found some cynical opinions that took me by surprise. I respect many of these naysaying critics (one of which is a Pulitzer Prize-winner I interviewed while in college), but I found myself disheartened at some of their reasons for bashing “The Help.” Since much of the American public has a tenuous relationship with film critics, I felt compelled to keep my colleagues honest and analyze some of their baffling responses…
It reinforces negative stereotypes of African Americans.
My response: If that’s true then it also reinforces negative stereotypes of police officers, southern belles, poor white trash, independent liberal women and Mississippians in general. What about the stereotypes it shatters? Stereotypes rob dignity, yet these women fight for their dignity and win it. Perhaps the critics were uncomfortable with regional dialect and linguistic idioms, but as a resident of Mississippi, I found them surprisingly accurate and complimentary.
It didn’t go far enough in its depictions of Southern racism in the 60’s.
My response: That’s strange, considering the other half of critics who wrote negative reviews felt like it went TOO far. Being predominantly white males in Northern and Western cities, it appears almost as if most of these critics didn’t know how to feel or what the perceived politically correct response should be in writing about these issues. They are aware that the film made them uncomfortable so rather than sound uninformed, they go off half-cocked.
“Like ‘The Blind Side,’ this salves white guilt…” Peter Keough, “The Boston Phoenix”
“It has an overmodest debutante’s aversion to any ugliness.” – Kimberley Jones, “Austin Chronicle”
My response: More mixed messages by critics trying really hard to sound tough about the issue. I rather like this one instead… “Is ‘The Help’ a condescending movie for white liberals? Actually, the real condescension is calling it that.” – Owen Gleiberman, “Entertainment Weekly”
It “whitewashes” history by making a white person the savior of the helpless minorities who could not defend themselves.
This one irked me the most and I thought I had a really good response to it… Until I realized it sounded familiar. Here is a negative statement I wrote about the 2009 movie “Avatar”: “I’ve grown tired of seeing films where a strapping outsider comes to the rescue of proud-yet-desperate minorities from the injustices of his own people. It rarely rings true and usually ends up insulting the culture in a poor attempt at political correctness. It’s like saying these minorities can’t fend for themselves without the help of a savior from the majority, which I think is a really lousy message.”
I learned a valuable lesson when I realized my hypocrisy. It’s not that I’m right and other critics are crazy or ignorant, it’s that sometimes critics simply need to shut up and tell us if they think the audience will like the movie. It also illustrates why there is often a deep disconnect between audiences and the critics. We (the critics) can be sanctimonious bores sometimes with our, “I am outraged because a college teacher told me these movies promote pro-imperialist sentiment!” or “Steven Spielberg pales in comparison to the 1920’s Russian Director Sergei Eisenstein!”
I’ll never like “Avatar” but I’ll continue to try keeping my know-it-all pretension in check. I recommend other critics try to do the same and no matter what they say, if YOU liked “The Help” don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it. The critics may have only given it 73%, but the audience score on Rottentomatoes.com rated it 93%. In the end, your opinion is the only one that matters.