The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

My Sandwich cake musings over The Help

with 20 comments

It took me a long while to get around watching The Help.

I don’t know what it was that put me off so much. Perhaps it was the poster. There’s something about intensively yellow film posters that irks me.

To be honest it might have to do with that my mother-in law recommended it so strongly. This is a bit embarrassing since it reveals my prejudices against mothers-in-law, but that will be a topic for another post.

Suits everyone
There was just something about The Help that reminded me of the typical Swedish dish “Smörgåstårta”, “sandwich cake”. For foreign readers: a sandwich cake is what it sounds like: a cake that is made out of sandwich ingredients. Apart from bread it usually contains ingredients such as egg, shrimps, mayonnaise, caviar and salmon.  I guess the idea is that there should be something in it for everyone. It’s supposed to be a safe card – not too spicy, not too foreign, not too challenging. For sure people won’t remember it, but they’ll eat it. At least that’s the idea. As of me: I hate it and I won’t eat as much as a spoonful of it, not even to make someone else happy. I’m a sworn enemy of smörgåstårta, period.

Needless to say my mother-in-law takes every chance she gets to serve smörgåstårta, and she also took every opportunity to recommend The Help. And I think that’s why I came to connect The Help with the dish. My brain had wired them together so I stayed away.

It wasn’t until last week that I finally caved in and rented it. To be perfectly honest I had the same reason to pick it as people who serve sandwich cake: the lowest common determinator. I tried to find something that various family members might have an interest in, and The Help seemed like a good choice. Or at least I that was what I thought in the video rental shop.

In the end it turned out that my daughter passed on it, referring to it as something intended for older people. She wasn’t keen on watching movies intended for her grandmother. I had myself to blame of course. I had been too successful transferring my prejudices to the next generation.

Eager to please
At that point however I already brought the cake home with me. So what could I do? I cut a slice. I cut one more. Actually I ate the whole thing and didn’t feel bad about it at all. It was surprisingly easily digested and tasted better than I had feared. If this was a sandwich cake, it had a better recipe than the average.

I don’t deny that it’s eager to please – possibly a little bit too eager for its own good. It’s a little bit generic and predictable, and like with all sandwich cakes, it lacks spiciness.

On the other hand you could as well look at it from another direction, arguing that this is a piece of classical, well crafted Hollywood production – easy to get into, easy to engage in, providing a nice balance between laughter and tears. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing!

I was moved, more than I had expected to be, and some of the acting performances were classy. I don’t argue about the win of Octavia Spencer or nomination of Viola Davis. I didn’t buy into Allison Allison Janney’s character, which I feel a bit guilty about. I suppose it’s not her fault, but for me she’s eternally stuck in the role of CJ and I can never quite see her as anyone else, as little as Larry Hagman could get out of Dallas. The curse of strong TV series performances.

A reminder
So this was the top layer of this cake, but let’s dig a little bit deeper and look at what lies under. Let’s look at the message and the politics about The Help. Because this is the point where I get confused.

The thing is: I don’t walk around daily thinking about how things used to be before I was born, which is not too long ago thinking of it, how abhorrent the racial laws were and what courage and efforts it took to make them change. As far as I recall, history classes in school usually ended somewhere around WWII. Of course I know those things happened, but it’s not top on mind.

For this reason it felt as a bit of an awakening to get this reminder about phenomena such as special seats on buses and weird ideas about keeping separate toilets for people of different skin colour. All those practices that seem barbarian now were common practice not that long ago. And if I, a middleaged woman, had forgotten about it, how aware are the younger generations? Do they even know or do they take the current situation for granted?

I honestly didn’t see any wrong with the movie in this aspect, on the contrary, I thought the intention and the message was great. For sure, it shows a society that is under influence of racist ideas, but this doesn’t mean that the film conveys racism anymore than Mad Men is discriminating for showing mistreated women. If anything The Help was a source of inspiration, particularly to upcoming generations. You too can make a change. Even if it scares you, even if the consequences can be bad, you can and should speak up about injustices.

Politically incorrect?
But from what I’ve picked up from the internet buzz, it seems as if the film wasn’t perfectly OK from a political standpoint, and this is what I can’t quite wrap my head around it. The best articulated criticism I’ve seen so far came from Wesley Morris (recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize, that’s how I spotted him.) But I still can’t quite see the problem. So – the girl who writes the book is white and the maids are black. Wasn’t this how things were back in the days?

Perhaps it’s a blind spot, coming from my privileged position. Maybe I just don’t see all the traps and how you unintentionally discriminate minorities.

Or perhaps there isn’t any way to win this game? If you want to nitpick, you can always find a way.

The cake that was The Help might not be my favorite dish, but it was far from as bad as I’ve been told

The Help (Tate Taylor, US, 2011) My rating: 3,5/5

Written by Jessica

April 18, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in The Help, Uncategorized

20 Responses

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  1. I love the way you’ve written this review, with the sandwich cake metaphor. Clever.

    As for The Help, well… I HATED HATED HATED HATED HATED everything about this movie. In my review I gave it 2/5 which I now realize was way too kind. I found the film absolutely abhorrent, from Bryce Dallas Howard’s appallingly bad performance to the incredibly out-of-place shit pie scene to the laughable message that “white people can solve racism.” Also, the product placement of Coca-Cola bothered me intensely because of how glaringly prominent and unsubtle it was. And another thing: the film is just way too long. I can’t believe I sat and watched it for 2 and a half bloody hours. Holy hell. For me, The Help failed on all levels and I can’t scathingly rant about it enough.

    Tyler

    April 18, 2012 at 1:11 am

    • There was Coca-Cola in the film? I honestly didn’t notice. That’s about how bad product placement works on me. I agree about that the pie thing wasn’t that funny. I’ve never been much into poo-humor so it fell a bit flat to me, especially since it was repeated overly many times. As of the issue with “white people solving racism” I guess you could turn it over and say: if white people caused the racism, don’t they also have some responsability to deal with it and confront it, even at the price of getting into conflict with your friends, bf:s, relatives etc?

      Jessica

      April 18, 2012 at 7:45 am

      • I didn’t care much about the pie scene, though Spacek was pretty funny in it.

        Alex Thompson

        April 18, 2012 at 7:51 am

      • I thought the Coke product placement was awful. Here’s a link to a picture from the movie that shows just how bad it was. You can’t really see the Coke label in the picture but in the movie it’s definitely there:

        Tyler

        April 18, 2012 at 7:51 am

  2. I responded to this in a very similar way. It’s certainly not a great film but it does what it does pretty well. Viola Davis is amazing, as always. She gave one of my favorite performances last year in this.

    Alex Thompson

    April 18, 2012 at 6:34 am

    • Yes, by no means will it be a classic or something I revisit. But it wasn’t as bad as real sandwich cake, that’s for sure.

      Jessica

      April 18, 2012 at 7:41 am

      • Yeah, that stuff sounds super gross.

        Alex Thompson

        April 18, 2012 at 7:42 am

  3. Nicely written. I didn’t understand all the talk about this movie and discrimination either. I thought it was a pretty good movie and entertained quite a bit.

    Nostra

    April 18, 2012 at 9:59 am

    • Thanks Nostra! Pretty good is what I’d call it. I wouldn’t have vouched it for best movie of 2011, that’s for sure. It wouldn’t even qualify on my top 25. But still. I didn’t find it as bad as I’ve been told.

      Jessica

      April 18, 2012 at 10:42 am

  4. HAHA I am getting flashbacks of ‘REGULAR SWEDISH MEAL TIME’ videos!! Have you seen them? I am sure you have.

    Anyway I haven’t seen this. I keep meaning to, but the 148 min running time puts me off. I find it hard to get past the 2 hour mark these days!

    • I’m all with you about the length. And still this is nothing compared to what it used to be. Think of Lawrence of Arabia! I’ve watched it once many years ago and I have a vague memory of liking it, but at this point I can’t imagine myself ever revisiting it. It’s four hours long for crying out loud.

      Books don’t need to be 900 pages to be good. Muffins don’t need to be the size of an entire cake to be tasty. And films don’t need to be +2 hour long.

      I’m afraid I have no idea of those videos you speak of. I probably should have…

      Jessica

      April 18, 2012 at 11:22 am

  5. This is just a great review, even if I liked the movie less than you did. The sandwich cake metaphor and the way you weave it in and out is just great. A different way to go about making a very clear point. Well done.

    As for the film itself, here’s my issue: the story hinges on telling the story of these two black maids deep in the heart of the racist south. If that’s supposed to be your story then you negate the right to just be a piece of frivolous fiction (whereas, say, “Gone With the Wind” was first and foremost a love triangle). At least to me. But it never really TELLS their story. It tells their story and everyone else’s in order to appeal to everyone and make everyone happy. It’s too much like……sandwich cake.

    Nick

    April 18, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    • Awww… thank you! Really!

      And I agree with what you say. When you try to appeal to everyone it’s unavoidable that the result will be somewhat deluted. You can’t help wondering what The Help could have been in a darker and grittier version. But perhaps that wasn’t doable considering the source material. It would have been an altogether different story.

      Jessica

      April 18, 2012 at 3:37 pm

  6. The ‘politically incorrect’ thing…

    I don’t think the issue is so much with this movie in and of itself. Rather it is with the whole genre of films (and books and television shows) that have been made over the years about the systemic racism of the American south. Almost everytime one of these types of projects is made it is about a white person who comes to terms with the broken social order and then fixes it largely themselves. Black characters rarely get the central role and usually have very little to do other than show the white character how bad things are. It is a story about the marginalization of black people that marginalizes black characters.

    Imagine if there were plenty of movies about women’s empowerment. Yet everytime you watched one it was about a man. He learns about women’s issues. He takes actions to fix the problems. The issues are mostly resolved by the end of the film. Female characters would play only a few supporting roles. Imagine this is the structure of nearly every peice of work that discusses the issue of women’s rights. There would be very few movies that have any women playing central roles, much less taking positive actions to make their own lives better.

    The problem wasn’t ‘The Help’ itself. It was that it just added one more occurance of the message… being black in the South was hard, but just grumble a bit and a pretty white person will save you. At least that is what I took away from the complaints, but what do I know?

    Kierbuu

    April 18, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    • Oh, that explains a bit. In that context I can see why it’s bothersome. It’s not this particular movie but the whole lot of it together. And yes, I suppose I’d react if you always had to include a man as some kind of catalysist for the women to tag on to.

      Now, I DO think that the maids were more than just puppets in this film. But still, I can see your point. Thank you.

      Jessica

      April 18, 2012 at 10:29 pm

  7. Now I need to know: what is your stance on vegetarian sandwich cakes and how do they tie into The Help? ;)

    Sofia

    April 19, 2012 at 7:50 am

    • Is there such a thing as a vegetarian sandwich cake? I haven’t encountered any yet. It sounds way better, provided that they don’t contain that dreadful mayo.

      Jessica

      April 19, 2012 at 10:35 am

      • Istn’t that the beuty with Sandiwch Cakes? You can turn them ever which way you like? A tapenade-foccaccia variety would probabaly be very nice… Or just substitute mayo for guacamole.

        Sofia

        April 21, 2012 at 9:34 am

  8. LOL Jessica – I was so weirded out by those sandwich cakes when I encountered them first in Sweden (my ‘mother in law’ made them too!). it really isn’t for me. x)

    Second your thoughts on the Help; I was looking forward to it quite a bit as I really like Emma Stone, but the movie overall left me a bit wanting in terms of emotional depth. it is very foreseeable clichee and sickly sweet in places.

    Syl

    April 21, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    • Oh you poor creature! There’s no escape from the sandwich cake if your life partner has Swedish origins. When people talk about “typical Swedish food”, herring is often top on mind. But I think the sandwich cakes are just as weird and typical.

      Jessica

      April 22, 2012 at 9:04 am


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