My Sandwich cake musings over The Help
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.
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.
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.
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