Be it controversial or not there is no denying the power of The Help so much so that it is lighting up the box office through word of mouth. The publicity has been off the hook as well, perhaps not playing to the blogerati but hitting right at the heart of white audiences, right smack dab in the middle of Blind Side territory.
I was sitting at a dinner with about six women (white, upper middle class) and the first thing that was brought up was “have you seen The Help? Wasn’t that so good?” The conversation then checked in with who hadn’t yet seen it. After it died down I brought up the subject of race. Needless to say it didn’t go over well. What did come out of the conversation was how timely the film was in terms of Hispanic nannies (do we say Hispanic or Latina?) and how there should be some rumination on this idea of what determines family and what doesn’t.
You can’t tell people who responded emotionally to a film like this that they shouldn’t like it because it isn’t politically correct, or that it’s offensive to African Americans and that any response to that is an endorsement of said repression and the perpetuating of the Jim Crow racism that has and continues to oppress multitudes. I’m not even saying I disagree. But I am acknowledging the emotional power of the film, just as I’m now acknowledging that a movie that does this well at the box office, has this kind of emotional heat, plays to women the way it does, has a very very good chance at winding up in the number 1 spot on AMPAS ballots. Like last year’s winner proved, the heart wants what it wants. No matter if it was a stuttering King or not – the emotional response is real.
What makes an accidental Best Picture nominee today? It’s usually a movie that somehow slips under or over the blogerati, and/or critics (mind you, The Help received many good reviews, most notably from Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleibermann) to become a hit and a strong awards contender DESPITE the shunning by the elite (this theory was offered up on our podcast recording this morning by Jeff Wells). In other words, a good movie is a good movie is a good movie.
When you have a screening at the White House by Michelle Obama and a very public endorsement by Ms. Oprah Winfrey herself, you can pretty much forget any sort of pubic shaming of the film; it has now been deemed perfect acceptable by two of the country’s strongest and most powerful black women.
It is also important to remember that voting is done privately and anonymously. That keeps it fairly honest so that no one is necessarily going to vote for what they SHOULD vote for – not for the best film, but the film they liked the most, starring characters they cared about the most. When it gets right down to it, the heart is the most influential organ when it comes to Oscar voting.
Therefore, I see The Help clocking in as 2011’s second truly strong and formidable Oscar contender (plus, when you get a load of the publicity team behind it you will see it can’t be beat). I count the first as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, another film that is receiving strong word of mouth, is Woody Allen’s biggest money maker to date and feels more timely than ever, as its message is about looking to the future and not trying to live in the past.