How off-screen haters could hurt 'The Help' on Oscar night

Celebrated writer Oscar Wilde once quipped that there was “only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” It was an early turn-of-phrase that helped give birth to the concept that there’s no such animal as bad publicity.

Certainly The Help, whose writer and producers appear to be laughing all the way to the bank after being dogged by a series of legal (Ablene Cooper, who has worked for the author’s brother, claims a character in the book, Aibileen, is based on her likeness) and social controversies, falls into this category.

History, however, suggests that while negative press may box office catnip, it can be arsenic for earning industry accolades. The roman-a-clef has thrived through word of mouth, with its Oscar buzz quickly growing into a deafening roar.

Irrespective of the endless flare-ups surrounding the book, The Help has a compelling and historically resonant storyline, brilliantly brought to life through first-rate acting. Sadly, those factors may be lost on the various award selection committees, which tend to snub movies that end up on court dockets.

Granted, the criteria underpinning the awards process is arcane and fraught with subjective thinking — especially when it comes to the toplofty Oscars, notorious for choices so unexpected they deserve their own drama category. But the concept of embattled movies getting short-shrift isn’t entirely without precedent. It’s something that fans of The Help might want to bear in mind when the awards season kicks off in earnest later this year.

The big-screen adaptation of the life of boxer and convicted murder Rubin “Hurricane” Carter earned Denzel Washington one of several Oscar nominations. But the movie was also pelted with a never-ending stream of controversies that accused it of numerous inaccuracies.

The key criticism leveled at the biopic was that its central character was depicted in almost hagiographic fashion. Culture watchers attribute the attendant bad press — and lawsuit — that eventually engulfed The Hurricane as a major factor behind why it was denied a major award.

The taint of legal scandal also undermined Amistad. Beset by a plagiarism scandal that sucked much of the oxygen out of its Oscar buzz, the powerful film about the Middle Passage came up short at the main event. Director Steven Spielberg spent months fending off charges from author Barbara Chase-Riboud (herself accused of lifting passages that she didn’t write) that Amistad stole passages of her work for the movie, but ultimately settled the issue out of court.

To be fair, Amistad also had the distinct misfortune of being nominated during a year when the mega-blockbuster Titanic submerged all other Oscar contenders, both at the box office and in the major awards category. However, being keelhauled for ripping off another author’s work was certainly not helpful to its chances.

All of this augurs poorly for The Help, an unfortunate turn of events given the excellent acting and intriguing narrative that lay at its core. With Mississippi’s restrictive Jim Crow laws as a backdrop for the story, the movie sheds light on a sliver of the civil rights era that had heretofore been ignored. The available body of cinema and literature of that era has been devoted (rightfully so) to major leaguers like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and others.

In its illumination of the quotidian lives of black domestic workers, The Help is singularly effective in the way it exposes the untenable contradictions of racism in general, and Jim Crow in particular. Alas, the controversies surrounding the movie are likely to deny Viola Davis from obtaining poetic justice after having been snubbed in 2009 for her woefully short yet powerful portrayal of a troubled mother in Doubt.

In all fairness, there’s more to life than being nominated for Hollywood’s highest honor. I readily confess to not caring much for the whole spectacle of the awards season. An Oscar win is hardly a guarantee of box office alchemy, and many films go on to do very well without a boost from the Academy. But aside from the wonders it can do for an artist’s ego, Oscars can lend a boost to the careers of lesser-known or otherwise forgotten people who get recognition (and roles) they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Walking through the streets of New York City (or any other city, for that matter) on any given day, a frequent sight observers can behold is the prevalence of white children being minded by black female caretakers. The phenomenon is curious, to say the least, and I’ve often wondered about these women’s experiences. It’s a given that The Help takes place in an entirely different place, a divergent time and under radically different circumstances.

But the movie shows how black women have long served as the integument of black and white families alike. It would be wrong for such a rich story to be judged on the basis of its controversies rather than its cinematic merit.