Friday, August 19, 2011

The Help

I stopped by the Balboa earlier this week to see The Help.

The Help starring Emma Stone & Viola Davis; (2011) - Official Website

The best piece of trivia which I've heard in a long time is that director Tate Taylor kept a calendar tracking the actresses' menstrual cycles. The implication being that if put you a dozen actresses together, you get a real bitchapalooza. There were long stretches where no men appeared on screen during The Help; husbands and fathers weren't integral to the plot. In fact, they were conspicuous by their absence.

The plot has Skeeter (Stone), a recent Ole Miss graduate, returning to her home town of Jackson, Mississippi. I didn't catch it until the end but her mother's (Allison Janney) illness is the primary reason for her return. Skeeter gets a job at the local newspaper writing a "helpful household hints" column to gain the experience she is told she is lacking. Her would-be publisher (Mary Steenburgen) see potential in Skeeter but she needs experience which is lacking in a newly minted college graduate.

Set in 1963, The Help takes place during the height of the civil rights era. Many of the historic events of the period are incorporated into the plot; more as time markers than plot devices. Medgar Evers' assassination, MLK's March on Washington and JFK's assassination are all mentioned during the film. Given the hindsight of history, you would think these monumental events would inspire the characters. However, The Help is a comedy that deals with weighty matters such as racism and indirectly, feminism but it deals with these events in personal terms as conveyed by the female characters' evolving relationships.

Skeeter decides that to gain further experience she will interview the black maids who work in white households. The maids care for their employer's children, prepare their employer's meals and are privy to their employer's secrets but they are subjected to racist and degrading behavior. The line between employer and employee is never breached much less the very real divide separating black and white in 1963 Mississippi. The Help glosses over the virulent racism of the time and place but it is a comedy after all

The maids are understandably tight-lipped when Skeeter tries to interview some of them. Skeeter's childhood friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the catalyst which convinces the maids that their employers' dirty laundry needs to be aired. In Hilly Holbrook, we have a supreme bitch that could give Joan Crawford a run for her money. Not content with lording over the hired help, she has started a petition requiring household's employing "colored" servants to build a "separate but equal" bathroom. Here's the best part; she frames her petition as a public health initiative because "they have different diseases." By the end of the film, Hilly has gone so low as to frame a maid for a crime she didn't commit.

Hilly is deliciously bitchy but the character throws the film off balance. I guess she personifies the racism which is ever present but Howard's splashy performance combined with the seeming lack of impact the civil rights movement had on the characters puts The Help in some strange alternate universe. Some of the black maids get pretty uppity for 1963 Mississippi with little consequence shown on screen. The enormity of institutionalized racism gets reduced to a bitchy white woman making trouble for anyone that gets in her way.

At certain points of the film, I thought the film was also commenting on the limited opportunities afforded to women of any color in 1963. Skeeter's friends think she is strange because she has a college degree, a job at the newspaper and isn't married. Perhaps harpy Hilly is the way she is because she didn't have anything else to occupy her mind. If she had encountered people of different backgrounds at a job or through travels, she wouldn't put so much emphasis on what food was served at her bridge club meetings.

The final criticism I have for this film is the character is Skeeter. Supposedly an ugly duckling, I though Skeeter/Emma Stone was most attractive. Her appearance, intelligence and lack of racism was highly attractive but I guess in the dying days of Jim Crow, Southern femininity had different standards of excellence.

All these issues I have with the film do not offset what is a largely enjoyable film. The film veers into melodrama and manipulates the audience's emotion in obvious ways but I couldn't help but root for Skeeter and two of the maids, Aibileen (Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer). I also sympathized with Jessica Chastain who plays an outsider who is shunned by the female white society in Jackson for strictly personal reasons by Hilly. That Hilly is a one-woman wrecking crew but she gets her comeuppance with a pie whose contents are best kept secret.

Combined with highly entertaining The Easy A, Emma Stone is establishing herself as the sexiest and funniest comedic actor out there today. I am a big Emma Stone fan.

I've already mentioned the talented Allison Janney and Mary Steenburgen in supporting roles. Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson also do well in their roles as Hilly's mother and Skeeter's former family maid, respectively. The only actor to make an impact is the diminutive Leslie Jordan as Skeeter's editor. I recall Jordan well from his appearances (opposite Betty White) on Boston Legal which was one of my favorite television series.

The Help is not exactly a primer for the civil rights movement because it is a light comedy dealing weighty issues. I was content to just laugh at outrageous behavior and hiss at the villain, so The Help was the right film for me.

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