Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Help (2011)

Dir. Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard

In The Help reference is made to the character of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, and that no one ever asked her opinion. Well this is what The Help is. It is a film looking at the racial segregation that still existed in the South nearly a century later from the viewpoint of black house-servants. 

Except that those servants are not writing their own story. Wrongs are righted, but only because a crusading white woman persuades them to tell her their stories. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird or Fried Green Tomatoes… black characters can only get some measure of justice or respect because of an enlightened white character. Here that character is Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone), back from university and itching to become a journalist. Her big idea is to interview some of the maids around town to see how they feel about being treated the way they are. This in itself is refreshing. Aibileen (Viola Davis) says “No one had ever asked me what it feel like to be me. Once I told the truth about that, I felt free.” Skeeter has very modern attitudes for early-‘60s Jackson. She sympathises with blacks (she becomes the first white to ever set foot inside Aibileen’s house), she wants a career, she is quite unfussed about finding a husband, and can even laugh when her mother suggests she might be suffering from “unnatural urges” (i.e. lesbianism) and need “a cure”. So hurrah for her.  

But she does not endanger herself by wanting to write this book. She merely faces ostracism. Any of the black servants participating in this risk being fired, arrested, or worse. Minny (Octavia Spencer) is blacklisted once she is fired. Yule May (Aunjanue Ellis) is beaten and arrested for theft. Aibileen had a son whose workplace death went unremarked, and the real-life killing of local black leader Medgar Evers provides a backdrop to some of the action. Nor do the contributors get much benefit. All they get is Skeeter’s advance shared between them; Aibileen herself is fired. Meanwhile Skeeter herself heads off for a new career as a writer in New York. There is a scene where Aibileen and Minny tell her to go because she has burnt all her bridges in Jackson, but one cannot help but compare the way she leaves the film, buoyed up by the servants’ gratefulness and her mother’s pride, with the solitary walk back to an empty house that faces the unemployed Aibileen. “In just ten minutes the only life I knew was done.” Skeeter’s life begins with her book. Aibileen’s ends. 

As one might notice, I have some issues with the central premise of the story. Is it historically the case that blacks had to be ‘saved’ by enlightened whites, or is it just that the original novel by Kathryn Stockett and this film were designed to appeal to white audiences? I felt that the movie started slowly and confusingly – although it certainly picked up pace in the second half – and that the various subplots around Skeeter’s love-life could have been successfully excluded. I found Skeeter quite un-engaging; it is only Emma Stone’s wilful gawkiness (such as her clumpy walk and frizzy hair) that saves her from being an annoying paragon. 

What saves the film is some great characterisation. Viola Davis is good value for her Academy Award nomination as the steady, nurturing, principled Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer is even better value as the sassy Minny (“Minny don’t burn fried chicken”). Some great character actresses are wasted in their roles – I’m looking particularly at Coal Miner’s Daughter’s Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s mother, and Allison Janney (of Hairspray and Juno) as Skeeter’s mother. Jessica Chastain provides heart and comic relief as the ditzy Celia Foote, a Marilyn-like blonde similarly ostracised from Jackson’s social circles because of the perception that she is “white trash”. Stealing the show, though, is Bryce Dallas Howard. Her Hilly Holbrook has to be one of the most unpleasant film characters of recent times. She is the queen of the mean cheerleaders - a snobbish, spiteful, patronising racist. As a leading light of the White Citizens’ Council she is the driving force behind forcing the help to use outside toilets (her concern being motivated by the fact that “they carry different diseases than we do”, and would thereby put their children at risk by using the same lavatory). She can be seen watching when Yule May is arrested and beaten by the police. Thankfully she gets her comeuppance, which leaves a very bitter taste in her mouth.

Minny's Mississippi Mud Pie:
the secret ingredient isn't love
There was a bit of a media frenzy when The Help was released, and it hoovered up lots of Oscar nominations. I may be out on a very lonely limb here, but I can’t help but think that this was largely due to the concept behind the film rather than the merits of the film itself. It’s human and humane and it looks at a time of great inhumanity in America – it’s precisely the sort of thing the Academy love. I am reminded of the exchange between Ricky Gervais and Kate Winslett in Extras that she wanted to do a Holocaust movie because she was desperate to finally win an Oscar… and the fact that she did finally win an Oscar for her role in The Reader, which was about the Holocaust. The film is fine… it’s just not great. I have heard some very positive comments about the source novel, however, so maybe I will enjoy that more if I read it. 

What have I learnt about Mississippi?
What struck me about this depiction of Mississippi in the early 1960s was that white people did not so much look down on blacks as a lesser race, but more that they looked at them as a lesser species. Hilly Holbrook’s insistence that black servants use separate toilets to prevent them passing on diseases to white children is one example; another is the casual way in which Aibileen’s son was dumped outside a blacks-only hospital following his accident. And this is not just the view of isolated individuals. White Citizens Councils were widespread and the actual laws of the state not just authorise segregation, they mandated it. Even to speak against racial segregation was a crime. One cannot help but feel that the State of Mississippi felt very scared of its black population.

And yet there was a clear reluctance of that population to stick their neck above the parapet. They had been successfully cowed by legal and illegal oppression. In the film Medgar Evers is shown speaking out against the situation; he is then shot dead. The church is shown giving the population hope, but counselling against action.

There was a clear class divide in Jackson. If one was black, the best one could hope for was a low-paid job as a servant, cook, or construction worker. One would live in a completely different area of town (literally across the tracks). No matter how well one saved, sending ones children to college would be economically impossible. 

It was interesting to see that the Mississippi state flag incorporated the Confederate ‘stars and bars’ – i.e. it incorporated the flag of an institution that fought to preserve slavery. And one might say that not much has changed – one servant talked of being left to her owner’s daughter in her will. 

There were good white employers. White children obviously did develop attachments to their black nursemaids. One story about a doctor buying a patch of land just so his maid could take a short-cut to walk was particularly touching. And Celia and Johnny Foote are genuinely hospitable towards Minny, treating her as a friend. In fact, early in their relationship it is quite clear that Minny is made uncomfortable by Celia’s refusal to respect traditional master-servant boundaries. 

Can we go there?
The Help is firmly set in Jackson, Mississippi. And while the film was shot on location in Mississippi, only a few genuine places in Jackson made it to the screen – the New Capitol Building, where Skeeter goes to find the laws on segregation, the Mayflower Cafe, where Skeeter and Stuart have their date, and Brent’s Drugs.

On the whole the screen ‘Jackson’ was actually Greenwood, about 100 miles further north. The wonderful folks at the Visitors Bureau there have helpfully put together a map identifying which locations were used. So, for instance, the Whittington Farm was used for the exteriors of the Phelan farm and a residence on River Road for the interior, the Hollbrooks lived on Grand Boulevard and the Leefolts on Poplar Steet. The bus stop was at Little Red Park, and the church used was the Little Zion Church on County Road 518. The scenes at the Jackson Journal were filmed in what were the offices of the Clarksdale Press Register in Clarksdale until 2010. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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