, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Separate but Sequel?”

Movie Review: “The Help” (2011)

Grade: B+ (RENT IT)

IN THE SPRING of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned for eight days in an Alabama jailhouse.  The crime?  Leading a peaceful protest against the institutionalized racism of the age otherwise known as segregation.  The result?  M.L.K’s masterwork “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” perhaps the second most important work of antiauthoritarian argumentation after that little-known piece of paper called “The Declaration of Independence.”  In a blend of aphorism and oratory, King writes of what he calls the “interrelatedness of all communities and states,” adding: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  The part, in other words, infects the whole.

The part in Tate Taylor’s “The Help” is the kitchen or the nursery in any ordinary Southern house and the whole is the deeply racist and paranoid world outside.  The uniformed maids working long hours in those humid, white-owned spaces have grown bitter and resentful after generations of hardship.  Known euphemistically as “the help,” they’ve got a few stories to tell about the white women they’re forced to “Yes Ma’am” all damn day long.  All they need is a person in power to get the word out, to publicize their notes from the underground.  They get more than they bargain for when a brash white woman comes home, proclaiming: “I’d like to write something from the view of the help.”

Based on the much-anticipated film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 best-selling novel, “The Help,” director Tate Taylor preserves Stockett’s sense that even the domestic sphere has something instructive to say about the world outside.  Set not in Birmingham but in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, the narrative unfolds inside a hermetically-sealed world of upper-class white privilege, one in which dessert forks and serving from the left still matter.  There’s Hilly (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), a veritable slave-master in a beehive who believes wholeheartedly that black maids should use separate bathrooms from whites, and Allison Janney as the cowardly mother of the film’s white heroine, Skeeter (the starlet du jour Emma Stone of “Easy A” and “Crazy Stupid Love”).  It’s not just Skeeter’s name that sets her apart from the vapid dilettanti of Jackson high society but Skeeter’s freckles, corkscrew hair, her literary aspirations, and her little interest in marriage and men.  When Skeeter returns home as an Ole Miss alumnus with a new writing job, her mother corners her about her unconventionality, worried that she’s having “unnatural thoughts” about the same sex.  “I read there’s a cure,” blurts a worried Janney, even a “brew tea” to make her more like Hilly and herself.

But Skeeter sticks to her guns and to the marginalized black help of Jackson, namely Aibileen (the indomitable Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer).  Davis earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for just eight minutes’ worth of screen time with Meryl Streep in “Doubt” (2008).   She has a fascinating face – deep and protuberant eyes always on the verge of crying – and alongside Spencer’s Minny, she’s the emotional core of “The Help.”  The two provide Skeeter with first-person accounts of their humiliations.  One of Skeeter’s questions, which we hear twice, is even sadder the second time: “How does it feel to raise white children while your own children are being raised by someone else?”  Unsure, or perhaps afraid, to answer, Aibileen can only stare at the portrait of her dead son (the victim of a racial hate crime) on her kitchen wall.   When the testimonials of Aibileen and Minny grow into Skeeter’s book-length exposé of white establishment, the joke is mainly on Hilly.

The film’s pace and performances are equally fine.  It’s refreshing to see Bryce Dallas Howard drop the usual blankness of her expression and relish in the bitchy malevolence of her role.  Her senile mother, played by a cat-eyed Sissy Spacek, garners laughs since even she finds her daughter’s racist airs repugnant.  On the narrative sidelines, perhaps, is the character of Celia (played by Jessica Chastain, the ethereal mother-figure in “The Tree of Life”) who, like Skeeter, sees no value in separate bathrooms and dining areas and relies on Minny (who is fired by Hilly for insubordination) to teach her how to cook and play the perfect wife.  The fact that she can’t get pregnant and that she’s viewed as a harlot by the in-crowd has driven her slightly batty.

By empathizing with Celia’s predicament as well as Minny’s, “The Help” smartly rounds out the various levels of subjugation at work in 1960s culture.  What’s worrisome about America’s nostalgic return to that era – thanks to “Mad Men” and its various offspring – is that the age of the skinny tie was, in reality, an age of wide disparity.  For every Don Draper in a skyscraper there were a million more Aibileens and Minnies.  The ditsy Celia is as much a victim as they are since all these women, white or black, are relegated to social roles that simply don’t fit.  The main deficiency of “The Help” is that it doesn’t do enough with this parallel form of oppression.  Too eager to please, the film loves to watch Hilly fall flat on her face over and over again, but in this respect, it can’t see the forest for the trees.  “The Help” misses the fact that racism and patriarchy are overlapping forces, which means that even the most villainous women are sometimes victims.