Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"The Help"--A Film Review

"The Help", the  movie based on Kathryn Stockett's popular novel, is a smash, a sprawling, character-studded soap-opera of a drama set in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960's.  It's a crowd-pleaser and a tearjerker, but it is also a thoughtful and relatively reflective piece of work. This is popular filmmaking at its best, the kind of movie Hollywood used to turn out in droves.  It is not highbrow, and in fact it is already being criticized for being tepid, and middlebrow.

What "The Help" offers is a rousing, epic story about characters in an intimate setting, presenting small moments of drama and comedy in an absorbing collage of self-discovery, heartbreak, anger and rollicking humor, set in a cataclysmic time that has been all but forgotten (at least by our movies).  It provides the satisfactions of excellent storytelling, superb craftsmanship, and exemplary screen acting, in the manner of such modern classics as "The Shawshank Redemption".  "The Help", I think, has even broader appeal.

Beyond the racial tensions, and the incendiary backdrop of history, "The Help" is essentially the story of Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young woman who aspires to be a writer, who is trapped in a social milieu of racism and studied snobbery.  She breaks with the attitudes of her family and her peers, and bonds with the African American housekeepers who suffer silently the indignities imposed by their insensitive (or outright cruel) employers. 

Soon she convinces one of her friends' housekeepers, the world-weary Abilene (Viola Davis), to tell the story of her life, and what it is like to be a domestic in these surroundings.  Skeeter records these stories in an effort to publish an anonymous book about the lives of women like Abilene.  Soon, Abilene convinces the volatile and reckless Minne (Octavia Spencer) to participate.  Eventually, due to the shocking news of the slaying of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, along with the indignities endured by other domestics, Skeeter has dozens of willing participants who share their stories, while Skeeter records them longhand, and types them later on her manual typewriter.

In the meantime, Skeeter prevails on her cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney) to tell the truth about what happened to Constantine, the woman who raised her (a glorious return to the big screen for Cicely Tyson).

I love that "The Help" trains its focus on the efforts of a budding writer, to encourage a repressed group of women to liberate themselves by relating the hard truths they have had to keep silent all of their lives.  It's wonderful for a film to glory in the power of the written word and spoken word, and to connect so strongly with viewers.

 Director Tate Taylor, who grew up in Jackson Mississippi as the childhood friend of novelist Stockett, has done solid work here, along with his cinematographer and designers.  His style is unobtrusive, but intricately well-observed.  He places the camera perfectly, and moves the story along at a leisurely pace that never drags.  The use of artifacts (like a TV soap opera intro, and newsreel footage of Evers, and resonant old music on the soundtrack) lends an immediacy and authenticity to the film. Taylor 's adaptation of Stockett's novel has many stories to tell, and a lot of interesting characters to follow.  All of them are given the right amount of attention, and Taylor's coverage is excellent.

In creating a film with a complex of plot lines and characters, there is a risk of falling short with some stories.  Occasionally there is a repetitiveness in the middle sequences; and the number of subplots, especially Skeeter's brief romance with a local redneck, pull the story away from its narrative motion.  I also worried that the depiction of the wealthy white women who employ these maids in their homes were falling into caricature. I was informed later that the unctuous treachery and exaggerated stylings of these women were very accurate.

Taylor understands this milieu, and decided to concentrate on the human element, preferring to keep scenes of violence off-camera, cutting away from the gruesome stuff.  There is nothing condescending about it;  I applaud Taylor and his crew for not compromising, and for refusing to throw the story off its orbit by pushing violent images, prefering instead to allow audiences to use their imaginations.  Although it doesn't hit as hard, the residual tension and shock remain, and so we can focus on faces, and dialogue, and incident, without being shaken by violence more explicit than a film as even-keyed as "The Help" can support.

Only once did I find the film cliched, and that was in the casting of Dana Ivey as the racist president of a local women's club, who pressures the Janney character to discipline her housekeeper simply for asserting a need.  Ivey played the same character, as the woman who employs and then humiliates Oprah Winfrey, in "The Color Purple" with the same tight-lipped self-righteousness.  (The appearance of Nate Berkus, a Winfrey protege, in the list of producers, as well as a story of female bonding and strength, give "The Help" a "Purple" undercurrent.)

"The Help" uses  the idea of separate bathrooms for blacks and whites as a motif to illustrate repressed freedoms.  This is an effective thread that helps viewers understand the degradation of the situation of the domestics, who are entrusted with the care of the white children, but unable to use the indoor facilities.  Commodes even account for one of the film's biggest laughs.  Food, too, is a symbol of the comforts that we take for granted that come to us through the thankless hard work of people we might not even notice on the street, or whose social circles we might never enter.  (I will guess that chocolate cream pies will not sell too well, for a while anyway, while this film is in release).

To some viewers unfamiliar with the era of repression in the early 1960's as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, this film might seem impossible to believe, or accept.  However, one can find in "The Help" some sly observations and amazing relevance to today's economic crisis.  When a new maid begs her employer for a loan to help with her child's education, she is told that the christian thing to do would be to not extend charity to someone who is able-bodied.  That captured the irrational wrangling of modern politics as well as any essay, or direct depiction.

The performances are superb across the board.  Jessica Chastain perhaps plays it a little broadly as an ostracized member of the white women's circle, but I relaxed into her portrayal and liked her character.  Sissy Spacek hams it up as the aging mother of the town's most dangerous racist (Bryce Dallas Howard). 

Cicely Tyson's hair-raising cry in "Sounder" (1972) when she ran to meet her husband as he returned home from prison, echoed quietly in my head as I watched this beautiful performer inhabit the role of Constantine (in flashbacks) with grace.  I was glad to see this actress again on the big screen.

Allison Janney takes a well-worn role and breathes fresh emotion and humor into it.  She downplays her tragedy, and gives her all to this part that requires her to look unattractive. 

Once again I am completely won over by Emma Stone.  The real indication of her skill as an actress is in her ability to listen to other characters on screen and respond accordingly.  One cannot help but root for Skeeter as she takes a very dangerous risk to help her friends even as she seeks to make a career for herself.  And Stone has some moving passages of her own.  She's a strong performer, and she made Skeeter a formidable character.

Finally, how can one give enough appreciation to the efforts of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis?  Davis will get the lion's share of accolades, given her character's tragic background, and Davis' complete command of her scenes.  Abilene is the narrative voice of the film.  Davis immediately warms a viewer to her with her honesty, and a well of emotion that is ready to bubble to the surface.  Davis triumphs in her confrontation with her employer, her recounting of her son's tragic fate, and, especially, in her interactions with the little girl in her care; these are among my favorite scenes, and often sad as hell.   It is a terrific performance, already a classic.

Spencer has the more flamboyant and comic role, which is likely not to be taken as seriously.  Her role as Minnie holds the most danger of veering off into slapstick and sitcom, but she avoids both. Spencer is to be commended for getting deep within this character, always showing the fear in the defiance, the humor in the indignity.  Her scenes carry some of the greatest tension, as well as account for the loudest laughs.

I suppose a backlash will be inevitable, especially among Oscar pundits who are scrambling to find a film worthy to topple "The Help" from its current critical and popular pedestal.  No matter--see this film, enjoy it, and prepare to be wanting to re-visit it again soon. 

Awards or no, this is a movie worth seeing.

*     *     *     *     *

Slain Civil Rights leader
Medgar Evers


  1. Excellent thoughts about the film which really makes me want to see it.

    Mind you we've got a long way to go before it comes out in the UK (and then it's opening against Tintin and Ides of March), so I doubt it will have such a great box office run here.

  2. Ben... Someone wrote recently that films about US historical periods don't usually fare well overseas. Anyway, if you have a free evening to spend a few hours wrapped up in an involving story and interesting characters..well, I hope my encouragement for you to see this will have been worth it!