' ' Cinema Romantico: The Help

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Help

I have one of those "Courage" posters that features an image from Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 with three black people pressed up against a brick wall because a fire hose has been turned on them. I have this poster rolled up and tucked away. I don't really ever want to look at it because the level of human idiocy that forced these three people (and countless others) into this kind of situation is not only unsettling but entirely incomprehensible. How could anyone possessing even a shred of sanity possibly treat the three people in that photo that way? That image, to quote Chris Rock, is "real racism." I mention this because this particular topic is not just so hot-blooded but so deep and terrible that trying to do justice to the plights of those who experienced it is not just delicate but extraordinarily difficult. It demands a screenplay as rooted in conviction as the heroes of "The Help." Unfortunately "The Help's" screenplay can't live up to the precedent set by its own heroes.

This film is based on Kathryn Stockett's novel and directed by Tate Taylor and set in 1960's Mississippi and tells the story of the black maids hired to do the cooking and cleaning and shopping and, in some cases, the actual raising of the children of the uppity white folk. Specifically it tells this story from the point of view of Abileen (Viola Davis), employed by Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O'Reilly), and Minny (Octavia Spencer), employed by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), only to find herself fired on account of some serious sass which leads to a job with Celia (Jessica Chastain), the one woman purposely ignored by the snooty white lady circle of Jackson Mississippi, probably because her good heart is shrouded by the fact she's a minor headcase.

Ah, but of course the film can't simply tell its story from the point of two black maids. Heavens, no! With whom could white America "identify"?! Enter: Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), an idealistic recent graduate of Ole Miss who yearns to be a ground-breaking journalist but takes a job at the local paper ghost-writing "Miss Myrtle" columns as a starting point. As it happens, Skeeter herself was basically raised by a black maid, Constantine, who upon returning from school she learns her sickly mother (Allison Janney) has fired. This gives Skeeter the idea of writing a book told from the perspective of the maids who make so many southern homes run but are forced to sit at the back of the bus and use separate restrooms nonetheless. She gets Abileen onboard. Eventually Minny will come aboard too. They know the risks they run and those are considerable. They forge ahead anyway.

I have not read the book and thus, obviously, have no idea how it reads or what the intentions were of its author, but if this story as brought to the screen is meant to be a look into an emotionally charged and painful part of America's past it's entirely too soft. It's like taking a slap to the face from a tuxedo glove. It doesn't want to make anyone too sad because if it's too sad then the person watching (or reading) might not recommend it to their friends. It's also possible that Stockett's goal was simply to craft her own Dixie-set "Da Vinci Code" - you know, use a fairly thorny issue to mask nothing more than a heaping, steaming slice of melodrama. That would account for the film's lack of any real complexity. I have no qualms whatsoever with an author or screenwriter or director wanting to make a melodrama for entertainment's sake. I love melodramas. God bless them, every one. The problem: Stockett's story hinges on telling the perspective of two black maids knee deep in Jim Crow. "The Help", however, wants to have its shit pie (somewhere Mookie and his garbage can are emitting long, loud, sad sighs) and eat it too and, in turn, displays the sort of cowardice akin to the monstrous Bryce Dallas Howard character.

At least Viola Davis nuts up. Fear and resignation dot her face at every turn but she also sells us on her defiance in her willingness to go on the record with Skeeter without requesting sainthood. There is a fantastic sequence late where the intention is to display her as a real American hero and she chooses brilliantly to play against the moment - embarrassed by the adulation she tries to wave it off. The problem is she seems to have wandered in from a different, tougher-minded movie, a movie where there no easy answers, a movie where a great deal of her incredible strife must have remained.

At the end in voiceover she says "No one ever asked what it felt like to be me." The answer is apparently on the pages of this book that Skeeter writes. The pity is we hardly get to hear any of it.


MrJeffery said...

nicely written review. i had a lot of reservations with this film and wanted it to be better but i had a hard time with its simplicity. viola davis really rose to the occasion though. i thought she gave the film more dignity than it had. i'm happy for octavia spencer's recognition too.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you, sir. You can almost SEE on Viola Davis's face her desire for the material to be less simple.

Castor said...

Dude did you get this through Netflix? Because it's basically mission impossible. It's been at the top of my queue since its release lol and I still can't get my hands on it...

Andrew K. said...

I know you told me I should come around here and give my thoughts when you post your review, but I'm tired. And, no sense in beating a dead horse (PS. Have you seen War Horse?)

But, I WILL say again Jessica Chastain for all the awards. ALL OF THEM.

And because she's so good I tend to think the movie is less about racism, and more about the thorny relationship between women of the time with racism being a significant portion but not the one one. And how HOW can anyone watch Miss Chastain shake that bag of chicken and squeal "This is so much fun" and NOT feel happy. A cold hard stone, that's who!. And I know you're not a stone, ergo...admit it, you loved her.:)

Sr Crystal Mary Lindsey said...

I hate discrimination like this. How have we white, got the audacity to think we are any better than another skin colour?? Yet their are also many of all colours who just think they are better and look down their noses.. I cannot and never have been able to fathom how they come to their conclusions. I love people of all colours and creeds EXCEPT those terrorists who leave their counties and want to take over someone else's in a dictatorship.

Nick Prigge said...

Castor: Yeah, I got it through Netflix. I watched it all the way back in December, I just didn't post my review until now, but if you've had it at the top since its release....I don't if my shipping center is different but 9 times out of 10 a movie with a "long wait" at the top of my queue still gets sent right away.

Andrew: I think you're right to a degree, that it is about women of the time, but still, if the movie chooses to makes it focal point Skeeter telling the "real story" of these black maids I just can't get past it not hitting harder. Ah well, at least we can agree to both love Chastain in it.