Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Help

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn't even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level

Those are lyrics from a Bob Dylan song ("The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol") that I couldn't help being reminded of as I watched The Help, a movie set very near the time that Dylan wrote both this and "Only a Pawn in Their Game," a song centered on the assassination of Medgar Evers (an event that serves as background to the film). This was the peak of his "protest" era of songwriting, and he actually sang "Only a Pawn in Their Game" at the 1963 March on Washington, where later Martin Luther King would give his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Help (2011)

There's been some talk about the "whitewashing" this story might be guilty of - this being supposedly yet another story where a white person "rescues" black people. Similar charges were leveled at The Blind Side, a movie which I feel deserves the charge, at least more than this one does. I'm sure some people in Mississippi will see The Help, enjoy its Southern fried humor, and pat themselves on the back that Mississippi is no more like it is portrayed here, and that's as annoying to me as to anyone else. However, I have to disagree with accusations that this is a "safe" film about a dangerous subject. Anyone who thinks that has never spent a significant amount of time in the South and does not understand the incredibly deep sense of shame that any decent Caucasian Southerner has about racism and slavery, despite being so far removed (supposedly) from such unthinkable times. We don't need an "edgy" story to make us remember, thanks.

There's a scene in the movie where a young woman's maid has the temerity to ask her boss for a loan. The woman, Hilly (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) explains that, as a Christian, the right thing - the way to be of most help - is for her to do nothing, reminding her maid that God helps those who help themselves. Ironically, this maxim turns out to be true for the characters in the film, though in a very different sense than the snobbish, bigoted Hilly understands it. Yes, the black women in the story need the help of the nice white lady. But they have to take a very big step for themselves first. A step that, in 1960s Mississippi, could not only cost them their jobs but potentially their lives as well.

Emma Stone gets top billing in the film, but she is not actually the main character, in my view (though she may be more definitively so in the novel on which the movie is based). The movie is narrated by a woman named Abilene (played by the phenomenal Viola Davis, a Tony winner for Fences and an Oscar nominee for Doubt). Abilene has been a maid for many, many years. She cleans house, but her primary job is taking care of rich white women's babies and essentially being those children's chief caregiver. This is more than just changing diapers and feeding hungry mouths; Abilene also gives the children a tremendous amount of love and support, holding them and rocking them much more than their mothers do and giving at least one of her baby girls the self-affirming mantra of "You are kind. You are smart. You are important." This same baby will later tell her "You my real mama, Abie."

But this is the 1960s and, worse, it's also Mississippi. There are actual laws on the books that basically amount to keeping white people from getting black people cooties, and if that sounds ridiculous and makes you want to both laugh and shoot someone in the face, IT TOTALLY SHOULD. This goes beyond bus seats and water fountains. Black people have to use different bathrooms, and in fact white homeowners have begun to build separate, outdoor bathrooms for "the 'colored' help." Not only are the schools segregated, but schoolBOOKS are segregated; books used in black schools can't be used in white schools and vice versa. And just to make sure some tree hugging free love hippies don't upset things, it's also illegal to publish anything about how wrong all this is and how people should be equal no matter what color their skin is.

Into this environment steps Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has just graduated from Ole Miss, which I'd hold against her (being a State gal myself - GO DAWGS!) except that her education has put her miles ahead of her hometown peers. She is a born writer and applied for a job at a newspaper (magazine?) in New York, but was told to get some experience and then try again. She maintains contact with the editor, Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who has advised her to write about something that disturbs her but doesn't seem to disturb anyone else. She comes home to find that the maid that helped raise her, Constantine (played by living legend, Cicely Tyson), has "quit" and after not getting adequate answers as to why, she finds her subject and starts planning a book.

She asks Abilene for help, but like I said, this is a dangerous proposition to even talk about, let alone put into action. Little by little, Skeeter collects stories from her and eventually more than a dozen additional women. She's changing the names to give the women as much protection as she can, and one of the maids (Minny, played by the wonderful and hilarious Octavia Spencer) tells one story in particular (the "Terrible Awful") that is so scandalous it acts as insurance in case local readers figure out who's who once the book is out and try to make trouble.

The writing in the film is nothing mind-bogglingly superb, but the dialogue has a genuine Southern verve (even if the accents are a bit spotty, *ahem* Miss Stone). The directing is perfunctory, but the cast is what makes the movie shine. At the top of the class is the peerless Viola Davis. I hope the studio is planning an Oscar campaign for her and that it's for Lead, not Support, because she is absolutely the star of this movie. Emma Stone continues to make me fall in girl-crush love with her, and the whole theme of her insecurity about her beauty struck quite a chord with me. Octavia Spencer is the scene-stealer, and her character gets to have the greatest culinary revenge since Fried Green Tomatoes. (Incidentally, I thought the movie used this a bit too much, but it's still wickedly funny.) Bryce Dallas Howard made me forget all about her foray into sparkly vampirism and hate - HATE - her social-climbing, "negro"-phobic character. Cicely Tyson is Cicely Tyson, 'nuff said. Allison Janney is great as Skeeter's cancer-stricken, racism-enabling mother with a heartbreaking secret. Sissy Spacek shines in a small role as Hilly's mother. The real surprise for me, though, was Jessica Chastain, who I was not terribly impressed with in Tree of Life, but who was all kinds of wonderful in this movie as the sweet and naive Celia. Celia is a girl who gets a lot of words thrown at her that I don't like, no matter who they're said about. Words like "white trash" and "slut." But if you see this movie, you try and tell me she's not worth at least ten of Hilly. Her sending a check to "Two Slice Hilly" is maybe my favorite thing in the film, and I may or may not have screamed in laughter. Also those of you who saw Equus on Broadway will recognize Anna Camp, who played Jill, in a minor role.

This is a movie that, like Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes, is very quotable. It reminds me most closely of Fried Green Tomatoes, mostly I guess because 1) it deals with bigger social issues and 2) it's a chick movie that's not about chicks trying to catch a man. (Skeeter does have a tiny romance in the film, but it very much takes a back seat to the main story, in more ways than one.) It's also a film about Southern people that is not hopelessly embarrassing, like so many of them are. It was weird to watch this with a bunch of New Yorkers, though. There was so much of it that they clearly were not connecting with, even though my audience seemed to enjoy the movie very much. One little but important thing I noticed was that I felt like I was in Mississippi in the summer watching it. It's not all over-the-top sweaty faces and bodies like in A Time to Kill (MAN, I wanted to send that movie a church fan!), but just about every time you see Abilene, there's sweat under her arms. A small detail, but one that adds just the extra bit of authenticity.

It all ends on a up note that might feel false to anyone who is conscious that yes, this is still 1960s Mississippi and these women are still stuck in unfair circumstances. But, in the words of yet another Dylan protest song, "the times they are a-changin'." It would take a long time for things to get better in Mississippi. In the background of the movie, the characters learn not only of Medgar Evers' assassination, but also President Kennedy's a few months later. My dad was in college at Mississippi State when JFK was shot, and he once told me that people were practically jumping for joy in the streets that "that '[badword]-lover' was dead" (their sentiments, not his - I hope that doesn't even need clarifying). It would take the State of Mississippi 31 years to convict Byron De La Beckwith of the first-degree murder of Medgar Evers. I was in college at MS State myself when that happened, and still boggle that I knew someone who had a relative in the KKK - in 1994, for crying out loud! And it was only five or six years ago when I heard a relative of my own utter the words "Slavery wasn't that bad" over Thanksgiving dinner.

Mississippi has had farther to come on the race issue than most places, but they've gotten as far as they have the same way everyplace else has - one person, one voice, one opinion at a time. And maybe it's insufferable that in this movie a black voice needed the help of a white voice in order to be heard - one of the characters even says as much - but there's no denying that that's the world we've come from.

Now I want to read this book. And go to Sylvia's for some fried chicken.

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