In The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll of preferences by party affiliation, the film about a group of African-American maids in the Deep South who turn the tables on their white employers during the civil rights era appeals across party lines.
This is in distinct contrast to last year’s results, says pollster Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, who notes that “in 2011, Democrats voted for ‘The King’s Speech’ and Republicans went for ‘True Grit.’”
“The film is a good Rorschach test because it’s sufficiently complex to allow almost everyone something to identify with,” says Robert Thompson, an expert on popular culture at Syracuse University in New York.
The subject matter – race relations during a turning point in American history – is something that touches everyone, he notes. “But the things people pull out are going to be very different, so while there may be wide appeal, there will not be agreement necessarily about what that appeal actually is.”
“It was a mixed audience, racially,” she says, which is not typical. More normally, she notes, “there are films that appeal to black audiences and there are others that appeal to white audiences, but they don’t usually cross over.” She kept an eye on the audience responses and noted hoots of support from black and white moviegoers at very different moments.
After discussing the film with a range of friends as well as students – both black and white – she says, “in general for whites, the film was cathartic.”
Many who lived through the era say they never spoke about race relations at the time. “This movie gives them a chance to talk about it,” she says, noting that many of these are Republicans.
At the other end of the spectrum, she says, many blacks have family members who can identify with characters from the film. “These are not social scientists,” she says, “they are just average movie-goers.”
But, she says with a laugh, they are almost all Democrats, “which provides broad Democratic support.”
“For all its so-called liberalism, Hollywood is essentially conservative,” he says. “The fundamental goal of a movie is to entertain audiences and keep them coming back,” he says, noting that divisive or difficult movies fly in the face of that industry imperative.
“If you are depressed, you do not buy candy or popcorn,” he says with a laugh. “The Help” is what he calls “a feel-good movie,” that delivers the most basic message a Hollywood film demands, “and that is the message that fundamentally, everything is going to work out somehow.”
The reality behind the film subject matter is far more difficult, notes Professor Sharrett, “but the cartoonish depictions allow everyone to feel that progress has been made and the important work has been done.”