Archive for August, 2011

21st August
2011
written by Mad Cow

Rated: PG-13

Mad Cow’s Rating: three cowbells

The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor and based on the best-selling first novel by Kathryn Stockett, has spurred conversations and controversy throughout the country. Set during the 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi, it tells the story of Skeeter (Emma Stone) a young white aspiring writer who decides she wants to write about what life is like for the black (“Negro”) maids in the town. Typical of American movies, it’s individualistic, simple, and political only in the hackneyed style we’ve come to expect. It takes few risks. Yet it’s a good movie that’s worth seeing.

Skeeter has returned from college to join a social circle of friends who have already married and had one or two children. Encouraged by an editor in New York (Mary Steenburgen) Skeeter is gaining experience by writing a newspaper column of household tips, all obtained by her friend Elizabeth’s maid, Abileen Clark (Viola Davis, Doubt). Eventually Abileen and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) agree to help Skeeter get their stories and those of other maids. Abileen writes her own parts. But Skeeter can’t get anyone to tell her what happened to Constantine (Cecily Tyson), the maid who raised her but was inexplicably gone when she returned from college.

Skeeter finds it increasingly hard to hold on to her relationships with her old friends. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs the Junior League and everyone in it, and Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly) follows along. Skeeter seeks out and learns about the ugly cruelties forced upon the Black maids by the white women, something that for her had been visible but simply part of the innocuous wallpaper of Southern white life.  She realizes that the maids live with the daily threat of malicious whims and lies that could leave them destitute or land them in jail. Amid fear and banality, drama abounds.  And everyday life, laughs included.

It was wonderful to step back and observe this marvelous company of actors working together, a group of talented women who take center stage in a movie with male talking parts few and far between. The acting is superb, with Davis and Spencer taking command of the screen whenever they appear. This is a step-back for Davis in that the part doesn’t let her have half the range she had in Doubt, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, but she still stands out. Spencer’s Minny is the kind of person who can’t keep her mouth shut when facing insults and injury. Thus she doesn’t keep jobs very long. This part will likely bring Spencer into people’s movie radar, particularly her character gets “revenge” on Hilly in an unforgettable way. Unfortunately, even as the two maids are magnets for our attention, the screenplay casts them as victims who are helped by Skeeter.

Howard as Hilly is a woman you love to hate, quite the recognizable queen bee. Jessica Chastain is marvelous as Celia Foote, a sexy “white trash” woman from the woods who has managed to hook Johnny Foote, an ex- of Hilly’s. Try as she might Celia cannot make one friend in that town and her only friend is Minny, her maid. Sissy Spacek is a joy as Hilly’s crazy mother who is sometimes not so crazy. And while all of the performances hit the mark, Emma Stone as Skeeter has one of the least interesting parts in the movie. She does Ok with it, but no cigar.

Tate might have gone for more subtlety in the flashback depicting Constantine in her latter days, with Cecily Tyson pretty much reviving the character of the very ancient and annoying Miss Jane Pittman. Tate chose to change the book’s central conflict about Constantine, that she had a white-skinned daughter. This significant part of the book has been botched into a confusing mishmash. Likewise, the pervasive horrific physical violence imposed upon blacks throughout the South at that time is simply and briefly symbolized by the assassination of Medger Evers. The book rightly has Skeeter going to Abileen’s house after dark lest anyone know, as in those days private meetings of blacks and whites were highly suspicious. Sun shines through Abileen’s windows in the movie, falsely implying that a white woman could just drop in to someone’s home in the black neighborhood.

Who is smart and who has power? Who is good and who is bad? Most of the white people in the movie smoke and none of the Black people do. The black women are “good.” They work hard. They love children. But even as they are “good,” the essence of victimhood and simplicity surrounds them and they are relegated to stereotype. The movie would have taken on more reality, not to mention sophistication, with the mention that at least one maid was a college graduate – as were many black people with menial jobs at the time, since they mostly couldn’t get hired for their true abilities. Likewise, it was worth showing that Abileen read many books that Skeeter borrowed for her from the white library. And both book and movie would have benefited by an evil obnoxious black woman. The white women get to have fuller, rounder, more idiosyncratic personalities.

Tate presents a “made for TV” sentimental and conciliatory interpretation of Skeeter’s mother Charlotte (Allison Janney), diminishing Skeeter’s relationship with Abileen and leading to a formulaic finale. Not all mothers must be redeemed and not all movies about race require an unlikely scene of triumphant smiting of racism by a newly converted anti-racist.  In case we were wondering, Janney gives us the “message” of the movie.  Sigh.

At least part of the final analysis has to be that the movie, albeit soft, is somewhat thought-provoking and excellent entertainment. (Some reading this will say that it shouldn’t need to be entertaining.) I couldn’t put the book down and I didn’t check my watch once during the movie.  This particular slice-of-life conveniently leaves out   the harshest brutality of the era, including threats by the Klan, sexual harassment and rape. But it is a slice of life and a credible story. I look forward to seeing Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer on the big screen once again, perhaps with a subtler story and a more courageous director.

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