Friday, September 30, 2011

The Help

THE HELP                  B-                   
USA  (146 mi)  2011  d:  Tate Taylor

What if you don't like what I got to say 'bout white people?           
— Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis)

At a time when racism is rearing its ugly head with a black President, with all the fringe groups aligning themselves to denounce the man with a feverish tone of racist hostility, this is an era when all too many whites once again believe they are entitled to the best jobs, the best schools, and the best neighborhoods, allowing blacks to fend for themselves in the criminally infested, ghetto jungles of America, which so many in America believe is where they belong, or in prisons, as they’re too afraid to believe in a world of diverse humanity.  The promise of hope for a cultural shift in the 60’s died a quick death with the selfish indulgence of the 70’s when racism was once again quickly swept under the rug, where the perennial problem is out of sight, out of mind, as so many whites continue to live separate and apart from any significant black population.  So long as there remains such a significant cultural divide based on racial segregation and unequal opportunities, the age old disparities between races still exist, where a recent study by the Pew Research Center suggests the median net worth of white Americans ($113, 149) is twenty times more than for black households ($5677), a number that has grown staggeringly worse due to the recession, where blacks have been hit harder than any other group, as they were the poorest and most vulnerable to begin with.  Generation after generation, election after election, this picture of gross inequity has remained unchanged, and if anything, despite many ballyhooed social advances, the economic disparity has only gotten worse.        

A major complaint against Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestselling novel The Help was that a white woman raised by a black nanny hired by her affluent parents had no business writing a Civil Rights era novel from the perspective of black maids, but then again, no one told Mark Twain or William Faulkner that they couldn’t write stories about “Negroes” in their time.  Quite simply, there’s nothing wrong with white people telling their stories, sharing their views of history, so it’s not really who’s telling the story, but the story itself that matters and what truths are revealed.  Certainly the first obstacle this movie has to overcome is what’s so fascinating about a film depicting black women in the most demeaning and subservient positions?  And the second is overcoming the perception that this is an Oprah endorsed best seller released as a sanitized Disney film.  In the final analysis, the film never overcomes these objections, as the rich white women living in the aristocratic Southern plantations all have black maids, every single one, where most have been handed down in the family since slavery days, where families continued to feel a sense of ownership with their “help” well past the 1950’s.  So in this movie, where the men have scant presence (sorry Brian), the white women “owners” are almost all portrayed as vile and one-dimensional while the black maids reflect the more complex side of humanity.  This stereotypical depiction prevents the movie from ever rising above such a narrow view, as the characters themselves just won’t allow it, remaining pigeonholed by the historic limitations of the script.   

While this is adapted from a literary work with a largely terrific cast, perhaps the best way to approach this film is viewing it as one might a play, complete with a revolving stage and a plethora of characters to discover, where part of the fun is relishing the colorful characters observed in such close range, each seen in light of their own history, awash in the sins of the era.  It seems like the current generation views the 60’s through the prism of the TV show Mad Men, where television replaces the void of their own shallow understanding of history, suggesting a culture of few who read anymore.  In that sense, it’s better to view history through the eyes of someone who was actually there, even if they were not a major player.  While Kathryn Stockett wrote the novel, the director Tate Taylor was one of her best friends growing up, both white, perhaps not the ablest of writers or directors, but they offer a shared understanding, so this plays out with the intimacy of a personal diary, rich in the meticulous detail of the powers of close observation.  Would anyone complain for one second if we were eavesdropping on a conversation between Southern white neighbors Truman Capote and Harper Lee?  Granted, this isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that made no attempt to interject history, but instead thrived on the magnificent details of Southern life.  Here it is the suffocatingly restricted characters of the maids that through the advancements of the Civil Rights movement eventually learn to appreciate some additional elbow room.   

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the pre-Civil Rights years of the early 1960s, the mood is soured by hearing the blatantly racist views directed towards their own hired help (while they are standing there!) reflected in the ordinary conversations of women’s social gatherings, led by the politically aspiring Queen Bee influence of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook, a woman of high social standing who prefers to keep blacks in their place, completely separate from whites, except, apparently, to raise their children, as if white hands are too good to be soiled by handling their own children.  What really hurts the expansion of the mood is the either all good or all evil treatment of the characters, where a few slip between the cracks, namely Hilly’s mother, the deliriously crazy Sissy Spacek, and the social outcast Jessica Chastain, apparently risen from trailer trash, who is treated as if she has leprosy, where even the blacks won’t get near her.  These exaggerations allow wonderful comic portrayals, as there’s plenty of humor to be found in this film, as otherwise it would be smothered in the singleminded earnestness of the do-gooder lead character, Emma Stone as Skeeter, a young white woman from a wealthy family who has just returned from college, an aspiring writer who decides to set the tilted world back on its axis by writing the stories of the black women who work as hired help, showing, as she puts it, “the other side.”  Two characters in particular are allowed to shine, Viola Davis as Aibileen, the heart and soul of the film, a devout Christian who believes God offers more than the life she’s been handed, bitter after losing her own grown son in an industrial accident, where economic circumstances ironically forced her to raise rich white children instead of her own.  The other is Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s best friend, who steals every scene she’s in, a dizzyingly funny comic delight, a woman not afraid to speak her mind, a prized role in any movie.  It’s interesting that Disney would get into the business of promoting a movie with social issues, but their own squeaky clean image restrictions prevent them from taking a more complicated, in-depth, and realistic approach, where the real horrors of growing up in the Jim Crow South are intentionally kept offscreen.    

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