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Thread: THE HELP (Tate Taylor 2011)

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    THE HELP (Tate Taylor 2011)

    Tate Taylor: THE HELP (2011)
    Review by Chris Knipp


    EMMA STONE, OCTAVIA SPENCER, AND VIOLA DAVIS IN THE HELP

    Servant problems

    The Help is a movie based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller of the same name about black maids who tell all to a young white reporter in 1963-64 Jackson, Mississippi. Characters are exaggerated and events are implausible and the movie, doubtless like the book, pushes buttons on its way to a too-easy, tear-jerker finale. But Stockett's and director Tate Taylor's hearts seem to be in the right place. They make no bones about the mindless racism of the maids' spoiled, do-nothing young white mistresses, who were in the tender care of these same black women or these women's mothers as children. The movie, like the book, shows how brave and tough the black women were. This is a movie that is unsatisfactory in many ways, but also serves a worthwhile purpose in bringing the state of the Jim Crow South back into the spotlight for a popular audience that may have forgotten or never knew. This is a touching story of black empowerment that gives the Sixties civil rights movement in the South a human face. Taylor, though new to directing, is a seasoned actor and he has gotten terrific performances from his cast even though characters are overdrawn. Interesting question (which may not have troubled the filmmakers): How well will this play for African-Americans? Obvious irony: the young white women are also victims, dumbed-down by their superficial lives and the prevailing white ignorance. The Civil Rights Act is waiting to happen, and so is feminism. But these caricatured white women don't seem ready for either. Taylor's canny casting includes two distinguished older actresses, Cicily Tyson as an aging, wronged nanny, and Sissy Spacek as the worst white racist's mother, who transcends senility to see through her.

    There are three heroines. The young white writer is Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone), just back from college and full of journalistic and literary ambitions, a pretty Nicole Kidman-like tomboy who sets herself apart from all the silly, superficial young white women she grew up with. Skeeter bands together with two unusually independent black women, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who now works in her family's house, and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), whose outspokenness has joined her with Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, of Tree of Life), married to a rich young man but rejected by the local social set for her poor-white origins and rumors of sexual misbehavior. Here is one place where the story's prevailing caricature works: Celia is a freestanding comic creation, as is her unexpected partner, Minny. Skeeter's plan of exposing the lives of black servants is blocked by the unwillingness of most to talk to her, until the civil rights climate and some local injustices turn them around. This movie has emphatic scenes of gatherings: abandoned toilets spread out on a white racist's lawn and people coming to gawk; the overdressed white women at their giddy social get-togethers; the maids crowding into Abileen's kitchen pledging to report to Skeeter. But the real focus is on individual action, and the surest winner is Skeeter, whose writing gets her out of the South and into the mainstream limelight.

    The Help touches on very real situations, even though the sets and costumes have an excessive Hollywood gloss. The maids are paid below minimum wage, with no benefits. But worse, they are daily humiliated. The objective correlative of this is a campaign by one woman, the arch-villain, as it were, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), to require the black employees to use separate toilets outside the house when on the job. MInny gets back with a trick, and language, that the Sixties would hardly have permitted. The Help is wish fulfillment for its characters. The maids get all sorts of concrete revenge, or in the case of some of the white women, have saccharine changes of heart. It's also a triumphant fantasy for Kathryn Stockett, who is telling a wish-fulfillment story here of a young woman with no previous writing experience who writes a sensational bestseller (in the movie, it's seen only as rocking Jackson). In other words, Stockett recreates herself as Skeeter Phelan, the feel-good heroine. And though she herself grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, she sets her events in the Sixties to make it all more heroic and significant. Nothing is saved from tweaking. Skeeter's cancer-ridden mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney) gets well at the end so Skeeter can go off to a publishing job in New York with a clear conscience. She leaves behind a boyfriend (Chris Lowell) who admired her pluck, but turned on her when she got political. No matter: men don't count for much in this story at any point.

    Taylor's movie version manages to escape some of the book's worst excesses, particularly its crude renderings of black dialect, which are toned down and become more convincing when spoken by the talented black cast. The pleasure is the acting. Despite running to well over two hours to tie off all its threads, the film is not so successful at setting the story in the wider political context, alluding briefly to the assassination of President Kennedy and the death of Medgar Evers but then forgetting larger events as it resolves its various local and personal subplots. Deep analysis is lacking: Skeeter asks Abileen what it feels like to raise a white child while your own child is at home being raised by somebody else, but the answer is long held in abeyance. The movie, vivid though it is, settles for feel-good entertainment and does not deeply explore the conflicts in white people whose black nannies are closer to them than their own mothers and then grow up expected to regard them as less than fully human.

    The Help's US release date is August 10, 2011; France, September 2; the UK, October 28. 147 min.

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    In The Eye of The Beholder

    One of best movies of the year, THE HELP is a movie to be judged by the filters of gender and race. IMDb audience ratings clearly reveals a disparate gender difference with females significantly rating this movie much higher with excellent marks compared to the lower ratings from males. Maybe females are able to relate to the cruel and bitter power differential that many women even today experience in America. One local African American educational leader in Utah had glowing comments about this movie. THE HELP exposes the intimate and revealing social plight directed towards people different from the majority, the class differences revealed in earlier movies such as WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (1974) and WINTERS BONE (2010).

    But THE HELP is perhaps the most closely parallels another controversial racial movie that received intensively mixed reviews entitled, CRASH (2005) that depicted the powerfully emotive prejudice of race, at least through the filters of those people impacted the most by those in the majority. This movie hits the right buttons, reveals and depicts what could be considered authentic portrayals of haughty superiority by the white class towards the lower classes that might be easily denied or dimissed by those who are uncomfortable with such depictions as easy exaggerations. Perhaps this is why the class divide remains so powerfully entrenched in this Country. Until the minority becomes the majority in the next generation, only time may reveal the true impact of this movie on its audiences of the future when all races may be able to experience this movie through the eyes of diminished power and secondary class.

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    Reflection

    This is not so much a review (Chris Knipp is a hard act to follow) as it is a personal reflection of my feelings after seeing this film. Having been raised in a household where our black "maid" showed up at the crack of dawn each morning and greeted me before my mother did, made this film going experience a very personal one to me. My mother was and still is (she's 88) a very kind woman. She was never demeaning to our housestaff and took very good care of their families. She often went to their houses to bring extra food or clothing and personally made certain they received bonuses around the holidays. My father hired members of their family to work for his company, even though he didn't have to. He did because my mother insisted on it. When it came time for me to join the Cub Scouts, I was the only white member. We did not have the same kinds of feelings toward our African American brothers and sisters as they did in the south. Yet, I clearly remember our first "house maid" as if I had left home yesterday. I am not mentioning her name as her family may read this and would not like it if I spoke of their mother as our "house maid." She was more important to my family than just a maid as she did not "wait" on us. She did not answer the phone or the door. She did not cook meals or serve us in that capacity. She did clean and did a very thorough job in a very large house that overwhelmed my mother with her eight children. Our "maid" was a very loving person. I could share many stories, but most of these are considered "private" by my mother and while she is still alive, I will respect her privacy.

    I did not feel the film was made up of "caricatures" that resemble real people. I remember those days. I remember our divided community. The whites lived in affluent neighborhoods while the blacks lived in terrible conditions, and that was everywhere, north and south. I was suprised to see the inside of the maid's house as being so pristine. Our maid's house was practically a shack with a family of nine crammed into it.

    I loved "our maid" very much. Her son and I were good friends. I found "The Help" struck home in so many ways that I cannot count them. If I ever saw a film that deserved great honor, it is this one. The performances, the editing, the photography, the sets, the costumes, the make up, the score - everything about this film deserves high praise. I only hope the Academy remembers that come January.
    Last edited by cinemabon; 09-05-2011 at 02:17 PM.
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    Thanks for sharing your memories of black household employees. I think they've been awakened in many white people by this film. Several people I know have also shared their experiences of beloved African American nannies or housekeepers with me. Still not sure about black people's reactions to this movie. When I say many of the people are "caricatures," I mean they are very broadly drawn, and broadly acted as well. But I could have added that from my own memories of growing up in Virginia and Maryland blacks' behavior in the presence of whites tended to verge on self-caricature at times in itself, and white people were sometimes also caricatures of themselves if viewed from the perspective of today. I have memories too, of numerous black women working in my family's house, and one who took care of my sister when she was little, but I didn't think my anecdotes were particularly relevant to a review of The Help. I needed to focus on the content of the source book and the qualities of the film that emerged. My friend who watched it with me was a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi in 1964. She had not liked the book, though she thought it had some points. She like you thought the interior of the maid's house was too comfortable, but found the outside of the black houses was realistic. We agreed that The Help is good hearted and well intentioned. It also has good performances. It has gotten many favorable reviews, and some of the acting or other elements may be remembered at Oscar time given how well it is doing at the box office. It's held the top spot in ticket sales for three weekends running, the first to do that since Inception. However given that according to Metacritic there are nearly fifty movies currently showing that the critics have rater more highly than The Help, I wouldn't look to it's making any sweep of Academy Awards this year.

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    I should say one prominent black film critic has reviewed The Help -- Armond White, whose review is called "Entertaining Empathy." Here are some quotes from White:

    As a piece of entertainment, The Help succeeds where Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls failed: this comic melodrama is geared to please a broad audience by contrasting the experiences of black and white women in 1960s America, just before the Civil Rights Act and the popularity of feminism. Sisterhood is shown as a circumstance of different but shared sacrifices based on gender, but controlled by race and class.

    These secret relationships are exposed when Southern belle and aspiring journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) writes a memoir-confessional featuring stories told by the black women of Jackson, Miss., that reveal how middleclass white women promote a system that constrains them while they, ironically, keep underclass black women in penury as maids, cooks and wet nurses—"the help."
    Empathic storytelling like this has considerable charm, but newcomer Tate Taylor's direction and adaptation of the book by Kathryn Stockett indulges prefeminist nostalgia more than it faces the complex realities of American racism.
    He thinks Viola Davis is too contemporary in style, not enough of a "Mammy type." He thinks the movie encourages audiences to nurture the illusion that we live in a "post-racial" and "postblack" Obama era, "where the anxieties of unequal yet mutually beneficial black-white relationships are conveniently, speciously, put behind us." He thinks the movie is "only truly progressive in the supporting role of Minny." I think it's only right to acknowledge that though Minny gets to deliver a powerful gesture of defiance, the balance is tipped in the direction of Emma Stone's Skeeter. White mentions a series of stage works that dewl with "racial interdependence" with more complexity, including Tony Kushner's musical, Caroline, or Change; the TV series "I'll Fly Away"; Lynn Nottage's recent Off-Broadway play, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark"; the film, The Secret Life of Bees.

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    I must aver. The complexities of contemporary life in America should be addressed and the past here is glossed over with "white icing." However, taken as a unit, the film makes an attempt for white America to address many age-old problems that were first brought to light during this period. What the country needs is a wake up call that for all of our bravado, our society is delusional to think we have leveled the playing field. As comedian Chris Rock says in regards to what its like to wear black skin every day of your life: "There isn't a single white person in the audience who would change places with me - and I'm rich!"
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