For Exploring Race Relations Without Getting Preachy, ‘The Landlord’ Trumps ‘The Help’

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In 2011, director Tate Taylor adapted Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help,” a story about the relationship between the wealthy whites and the poor blacks who raised their children of 60s-era Mississippi, into a feature film. When all was said and done, Taylor’s film made nearly ten times its production budget, was nominated for a truckload of awards (including 8 NAACP Image Awards and 4 Academy Awards), and had everyone’s aunts and grandmas talking their ears off about how much they wanted to go see it. To say that it ended up being a success would be something of an understatement.

The Landlord is the debut of director Hal Ashby, one of the great ’70s filmmakers who, for some reason, doesn’t get the same recognition as many of his contemporaries. It earned Lee Grant a nomination for Best Supporting Actress back in the day, but it’s a film (like most of Ashby’s work not named Harold and Maude) that’s been generally forgotten over time. This is strange, because not only is it a great film that pushes some racial hot-buttons, but it also features a couple of actors who went on to do big things in Beau Bridges and Lou Gossett Jr.

What do they have in common?

Both of these movies feature well-to-do, young, white protagonists who find themselves thrust into the world of lower class blacks for the first time ever. In The Help, Emma Stone’s Skeeter has grown up among black maids her entire life, but it’s only when she starts interviewing them for a human interest story that she comes to truly understand them as human beings. In The Landlord, Beau Bridges’ Elgar comes from an even more insular, upper crust world, where the mention of a black neighborhood brings up images of savage tribesmen in his pampered family’s heads. His eye-opening experience of how the other half lives comes when he buys a tenement in a bad neighborhood with the intentions of renovating it and ushering in some good, old-fashioned gentrification.

Why is The Help overrated?

There’s no denying that a movie that gets three acting nominations at the Academy Awards contains good performances, but The Help mixes some bad in with the good as well. Sissy Spacek looks like she’s having a great time playing the drunk mother, but her slurring, devil-may-care interpretation of a woman long-suffering from alcoholism feels out of place in a film that shoots for poignancy as often as this one. And she’s just the appetizer. Bryce Dallas Howard is the bad acting main course. The Help would have been so much more effective if her stuck-up, racist character was actually three-dimensional and shown to be coming from a relatable place. Instead, she’s a caricature, and Howard hammers the point home by almost hissing all of her lines like a snake. The coup de grâce is the scene where a bunch of toilets get left on her front lawn and she plays the humiliation by petting her “Yard of the Month” sign and loudly weeping like a cartoon villain who’s been found out at the end of en episode of Scooby-Doo. Good grief.

That strange mix of tones permeates the entire movie, and almost always undercuts any moments that might have been emotionally resonant. Jessica Chastain plays her character as a gag reel of dim-bulb-blonde jokes for 90% of the film, and then suddenly we’re supposed to take her deathly seriously when she’s put in a medical emergency. Octavia Spencer’s character is at the center of a childish poop gag one minute, and then we’re asked to nod our heads in solemn understanding when she’s involved in a spate of domestic violence the next. Even Viola Davis, who gives the show-stopping performance of the film, has her big scene at the end undercut when they keep cutting to the over-the-top reactions of a child actor. Davis plays the scene perfectly, breaking your heart without even doing much acting, but then they keep cutting to a melodramatic freakout from a little girl who is barely old enough to talk. Why not let the adult handle this one?

Seemingly because Taylor and his editor made no choices when putting this one together. This is a big, sprawling novel that they’re making a film version of, and it appears that in the writing process as well as in the editing, they did everything they could to cram in as much as possible. Unfortunately, there are just too many characters, too many subplots, and too many competing tones for this to be an effective film. Boil things down to a 100 minute movie juxtaposing Stone’s character’s memories of the maid who raised her with Davis’ character’s current experiences raising another white girl, and you could have had something special. At 146 minutes and with more story threads than I can recall, The Help is too bloated and messy for its own good.

Why is The Landlord underpraised?

The biggest thing The Landlord is able to do more effectively than The Help is take its focus across racial lines without ever falling prey to treating its characters as symbols or absolutes. A recent line of smutty novels has sullied the connotation of this phrase a bit, but The Landlord is so interesting because it’s able to paint in shades of grey rather than just blacks and whites. Bridges’ character starts off as kind of a clueless douche, and ends as the same clueless douche—but he’s able to hit milestones and grow regardless. His tenants start off as being militant and hostile, and end being militant and hostile still—but we see them in their softer moments as well, and they’re all given different characterizations and motivations. Never does the film make the mistake of telling us, “black people act like this and white people act like this,” or even “good black people act like this, and bad black people act like this, and good white people act like this, and bad white people act like this.” The characters here are just people, and we’re invited to watch their struggles and take from them what we will.

There’s some deep stuff getting explored too, despite the fact that The Landlord also contains some of The Help’s wacky humor. The difference here is that this film never tries to jerk tears or preach, so it feels less manipulative than going from slapstick to melodrama. There are laughs when Bridges’ character’s mom (Lee Grant) gets drunk with one of his tenants (and fills her designer purse with left over ham hocks), but nobody eats poop, and we’re not asked to cry over either character two scenes later. Like Howard’s Hilly Holbrook in The Help, Lou Gossett’s Copee Johnson is full of anger and hateful toward people of other races. But, in this film, we’re made to understand where his feelings come from, and even if we don’t agree with them, we can at least empathize.

The Landlord has more to say than The Help, and, at the same time, is talking less. While The Help gives us the easy lesson that people should be nice to each other, no matter what color their skin is, The Landlord understands that divisions between groups are more deeply rooted in social class than they are race. Even if someone is thrust into another culture and learns to love their way of life, there is still going to be real, concrete separations between the two groups if one is living in excess while the other is starving. And the scene toward the end of the film—where shots of inner city black kids and privileged white kids in different schools are juxtaposed—it lets us know that people from different backgrounds are always going to have different perspectives, because they’ve been raised in completely different environments and under completely different circumstances. No amount of understanding can ever completely erase that gap. The Landlord may not have many answers, but the good thing about it is that is gets us thinking about the questions.

Evening the odds.

One way of comparing how effective these films are in relation to each other is to look at how well they utilize their protagonists. The Help takes Emma Stone, an actress who’s becoming so beloved that her stalkers will probably soon bloom into full-blown cults, and it gives her nothing to do. At best she’s serving as the eyes through which we see the story—because heaven forbid a movie about black people actually has a black person as its main character—and at worst she’s shoe-horned in to tell a counterproductive, insulting side-story about how girls need to do something about their nappy hair if they ever hope to land a husband.

Beau Bridges, on the other hand, went on to do so many things, but he’s still maybe never had a chance to let his natural charisma shine like he does in The Landlord. His character goes through a whirlwind of growth and change, and sometimes you want to hug him and sometimes you want to strangle him, but he always feels consistently portrayed and authentic. Bridges is like a sheep dog in this movie—so clueless and adorable that you want to forgive him of any thoughtless mistake he makes—but The Landlord still doesn’t let him off the hook, and when it’s time for him to get some comeuppance, he plays that well too.

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Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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