Sunday, August 28, 2011

"The Help"

In the prelude, Abileen stoically tells an unseen interviewer that her grandmother was a house slave and her mother was a house maid. She, herself, has raised 17 white children. A naive voice asks if she ever thought of being something else. Her answer is the blank stare of resignation passed on from generations of subservience.

The movie proper starts with recent college grad Skitter (a wide eyed Emma Stone) being interviewed for her first newspaper job. Skitter is hired to write a housekeeping and cooking column – a subject she knows nothing about. No matter. While at a bridge club meeting, she asks her friend permission to interview her maid. Ironically, the maid, Abileen, is the only one she knows who keeps house. It becomes clear that her friend sees Abigail as her property when she catches Skitter affirming Abileen's contribution to the household. She tells Skitter that Abileen will be unable to continue working on the project.

Upset by her friend's mistreatment of Abileen and the unexplained absence of the beloved maid who raised her, Skitter is inspired to write a book on the maids' perspective of working for a white family. Her editor warns that she will never be able to get any maids willing to risk their jobs or their lives to talk to her. It is dangerous. It is 1960, the dawn of the civil rights movement. Jim Crow laws make it illegal to even print civil rights material. Tensions mount as a black activist is killed. The fear is palpable as black passengers are thrown off the bus near the murder sight and Abileen flees for her life past race riots.

This movie is about the shared delusion that blacks and whites in the South were separate. In 1960s Jaskson, Mississippi, Jim Crow laws and bridge club etiquette rule their lives. The laws were designed to separate the whites from the blacks, but black women had always worked very close to white families - preparing their food, cleaning their bathrooms, and changing their babies' diapers. For generations, the black “maids” raised the white children. Skitter explains to her publisher, “We are raised by our black maids. They love us and we love them, but they can't use the same bathroom.”

The setting is the domestic world of kitchens, nurseries and bathrooms which gives ample opportunities for kitchen (and bathroom) humor. On the whole, writer/director Tate Taylar does a good job balancing comedy and drama. The 146 minutes flies by with some laughs, tears, and dramatic tension. But sometimes the comedy goes a bit over the top. Hilly starts a petition initiating a law to have separate bathrooms for the help - even though her feisty maid, Minny, is the envy of the bridge club for her great cooking. This gives new meaning to the phrase, “Don't crap where you eat.”

There are multiple storylines. Care is given in showing the intertwining lives of the blacks and the whites. The writer seems to be saying both races are enslaved by the cultural restrictions of the time. Even Skitter's mother couldn't stand up to the bigots in her social club. She admits to Skitter, "Sometimes courage skips a generation." But it's the performances of Viola Davis as Abileen and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as Minny that holds it all together. Davis adds gravity to every scene she is in. In Abileen's carriage we see the weight of generations of suppression as well as the personal risk she is taking with her involvement in the taboo book. Minny is different. After working for segregationist bridge club president Hilly, Minny has had enough. She is a fire cracker ready to explode. These women are survivors. But they have risen above that. They have stood up to their fears. They are heroes in their own civil rights protest and free women. I can't say so much for Hilly and her bridge club.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

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