The Help

By Jared Young

Mailed on March 03, 2012

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Dear Chris Ubick
Prop Master

Dear Chris,

You know, I was surprised. For a movie about civil rights that takes place in perhaps the most abhorrent time and place for the concepts of both civility and righteousness - Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s - I was surprised by how much the plot of The Help relies, in its muddled third act, on one of your props.

Of course, I'm talking about the chocolate pie.

As prop master, I imagine it was no easy task to create (or build, or bake) that pie. For the scene to work - indeed, for the very denouement of the film to unfold in a way that is plausible - the pie has to seem irresistible. And it does. Whatever you used to create the filling (was it real chocolate, or a painted latex mold of a lesser pie?) it has a creamy texture and mahogany-and-copper color that certainly tweaks the taste buds. But your pie is more complicated than that. In addition to appearing delicious, it must also, upon the vouchsafing of some rather horrifying information, emit the vulgar essence of a dessert Dante might have been offered during his sojourn to the third circle of hell. No easy feat to accomplish with a single pastry.

But don't worry, Chris. You pulled it off.

Poor Bryce Dallas Howard, who, mid-career and still with so much sweetness to offer, has made a habit lately of playing these bitchy types (I'm thinking of 50/50 from earlier this year), helps you out the best she can. But her role as the shrieking harpy villainess - a sort of Real Racist Housewife of Jackson - is an unenviable one. After eating your pie, she summons some terrific wails and screams, but her character is so dimensionless - and, by the end, so utterly unchanged - that it's difficult even to take pleasure in her much-deserved comeuppance. Oscar-nominee Octavia Spencer and Sissy Spacek (who knows something about the shame of interacting in unfortunate ways with bodily matter) are there to watch and gape at Howard's histrionics, but, despite their pedigree (the supporting cast, which includes Cicely Tyson and Allison Janney, is quite good), it really is your pie that carries this vital scene.

And the rest of the film, too.

Which I guess was my problem, Chris.

In a movie like this that searches for levity in dark places, it all comes down to finding a balance between the sweet and the foul, and you did that a lot more effectively with your pie than writer/director Tate Taylor was able to do with the rest of the film. I guess there's something to admire in the sincerity he so unambiguously applies to just about every scene; this is a certain type of film - a well-meaning Hollywood historical drama - and films like these always deal in absolutes. But real-world issues like Civil Rights are often ambiguous: if not ideologically, at least in the motivations and desires of the people living through them.

Where you and your props team were able to find a diverse range of mid-century toilets for the film's other scene of scatological revenge, Taylor paints a picture of Jackson that is populated primarily by two very familiar stereotypes: the (1) wise and stoic black women who suffer silently under the autocracy of the (2) wealthy, clueless, bouffant-wearing Southern Belles. And the message, in the end, is equally middling: that the courage to persevere must come from without.

The story deserves something better than that. I think that's what bums me out the most, Chris: that the dramatic onus of a film that references the assassination of Medgar Evers and features a pretty disturbing scene of domestic violence should be placed on a single delicious dessert.

At least you made it well, my friend (seriously, was it real chocolate or was it Andy Serkis in a ping-pong ball suit channeling real chocolate?). You got the smooth cocoa tones of the filling just right, but The Help, as a whole, offers a pretty marbled and tasteless view of the civil rights movement.

It looks like it should taste good. But it doesn't.

Forever and always,

Jared Young

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