Posted by: C.E. Chambers | September 24, 2011

The Help (2011): Film Review

theatrical release poster

By C.E. Chambers   Posted September 24, 2011

This film is based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett.  Tate Taylor, the screenwriter and director, deftly achieved a near-miraculous balance between the raw subject matter and the characters drawn from sensitive racial tensions and cultural traditions of the 1960s in America’s South.

The major protagonists are Negro women living in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, who are career domestic servants for pampered, wealthy white women, and a young Caucasian journalist nicknamed “Skeeter.”  Skeeter (Emma Stone) has just graduated from college and is angry at her mother for the mysterious firing of a much-loved maid who had worked for the family for twenty-nine years.  She obtains a part-time job writing a cleaning advice column for The Jackson Journal.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer give inspired, brilliant performances as Aibileen and Minny, two maids from an era when young Negro girls not infrequently dropped out of school in order to earn money for their struggling families.

The long-suffering Aibileen, whose son died four years before, faithfully works six days a week and instills frequent healthy doses of self-esteem into the white children she lovingly raises (seventeen in all).  Minny is a renowned cook whose employer throws a hissy fit at the thought of a Negro using her bathroom.  Mississippi laws during that time period explicitly outlawed the interchange of books between white and black schools and prohibited black barbers from cutting white girls’ hair.

The white women spend most of their time primping for and attending sumptuous luncheons and raising money for poor children in Africa.  Most of them are honey nice on the outside and pitifully shallow on the inside.  (Actress Sissy Spacek’s character is a spunky alternative to the disingenuous characters.)  They’re very negligent mothers; one is known to leave her child in the same diaper for ten hours if the family maid isn’t there to change it.

Hilly, the town’s heartless queen bee (played malevolently by Bryce Dallas Howard), whom all the other white women swarm around, refuses to loan $75 to her maid to help her son remain in college.  Hilly prefaces her response by saying, “As a Christian, I’m doing you a favor…” and then adds something like “[We] don’t give charity to those who are well and able to take care of themselves.”  But that’s when she’s being nice.

Skeeter, a likable, color-blind and eager journalist (Stone is never cloying), decides to write a book “from the perspective of the help.” She tries to gain the confidence of the black maids in the town.

Vintage cars, upswept hairdos, women who wear starched, cotton dresses (Skeeter wears what looks like a fetching all-linen dress in an early scene), and turquoise-colored leather booths from a diner impart a decidedly ‘60s aura.

Domestic violence is alluded to but never seen.  African-Americans receive spiritual and emotional nourishment by attending a Christian church.  (When was the last time Hollywood allowed non-African-American characters to listen to a church sermon and put the words into practice after arriving home?)

There’s a short segment about Medgar Evers, the gifted African-American civil rights activist and first field operator for Mississippi’s NAACP who was murdered in Jackson in 1963.  The unsettling subject matter could have justifiably propelled the film in a different direction.  Evers once wrote:

“It may sound funny, but I love the South. I don’t choose to live anywhere else. There’s land here, where a man can raise cattle, and I’m going to do it some day. There are lakes where a man can sink a hook and fight the bass. There is room here for my children to play and grow, and become good citizens—if the white man will let them….”

“The Help” is almost two and one half hours long but the film never lags.  Even though there’s an uneven emphasis on wealthy white women to the exclusion of portraying anyone else as poor unless they’re Negroes, and even though Southern white men are portrayed as obnoxious and unfeeling, and even though there’s a ridiculously ignorant but good-hearted dumb blonde with an hourglass shape whose clothes look like they’ve been painted on her, and even though the other dominant white woman besides Skeeter is a stereotypically cold-hearted and unethical Christian, I still enjoyed this film.  At least three other white characters aren’t heavily stereotyped.

I will be very surprised if “The Help” and some of the actors aren’t nominated for awards.  I believe without a doubt that it will be re-released in February 2012 during the 84th Academy Awards.

[Rated PG-13: light profanity; a racial expletive; blood from a miscarriage; a pie from h*ll]

********

It’s impossible to watch this film without the specter of slavery looming in the shadows of the darkened theaters in which it’s shown.  The early 1960s was the dawning of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.  Approximately 102 years earlier, Mississippi had been unwilling to part with its slaves and had broken away from President Lincoln’s Union of federally-connected states.  The Civil War began shortly thereafter; four long years passed and approximately 650,000 soldiers died but slavery was eradicated from America.

In 1963, an African-American living in the South who was more than one hundred years of age may have been born into slavery.

In approximately 1970, I experienced something that alerted me to the fact that a measure of the same cultural scenario that was playing out in the Jim Crow South had a toe-hold in the Pacific Northwest where slavery had been basically non-existent (except among early indigenous Native Americans).

As a recent high school graduate, I had obtained a temporary job at a large company in Bellevue, Washington, a city I wasn’t familiar with.  On my first day of work, I arrived late at the crowded downtown Seattle bus terminal and jumped onto a packed bus just before it departed for the approximate thirty or forty minute trip.  I quickly paid my fare and turned around to search for a seat – and was surprised to see everyone staring at me.  They all had the same stunned expression on their faces.

They were all African-American women dressed in white uniforms who were on their way to work as domestic servants for the affluent residents of Bellevue.

For the two weeks or so that I worked for the insurance company in Bellevue, I was the only white passenger during that morning ride.  The African-American women always seemed a little surprised when I boarded the bus.  The passenger sitting next to me would engage in pleasant small talk if I instigated it.

I debated whether I should share this story.  The only people who can validate it are the passengers whose bus I shared and my father, who was a policeman and worked in downtown Seattle.  He drove me to the bus terminal each morning.  He passed away a few years ago.

********

Note:  Slavery in North America is a very complex subject for many reasons.  The geographical enormity of the region, the individual histories of the early British-held colonies that introduced Europe’s practice of owning African-American slaves to the new world, and the American Territories and American states (some were created with a prohibition against slavery and others ended slavery in the late 1700s), etc.  In addition, African-Americans, Native Americans, and even whites were slaves.

On the eve of the Civil War in 1861, America had thirty-four states and at least seven Territories.  There were nineteen “free” states and fifteen “slave” states. (Other states were added to the Union during the Civil War which can cause confusion for researchers.)

Many if  not most of the soldiers who fought during the Civil War were volunteers, especially during the first year.

Some researchers say that African slaves were introduced into North America two centuries before the United States Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.  Others claim there was a gap of one century.  Wikipedia:  “The first English colony in North America (Virginia) acquired its first Africans in 1619, after a ship arrived, unsolicited, carrying a cargo of about 20 Africans.  Thus, a practice established in the Spanish colonies as early as the 1560s was expanded into the English North America.”

Somewhere between 500,000 to 645,000 African-American slaves were brought to North America while an estimated 12,000,000 were shipped to the Caribbean.

Slavery in North America flourished mostly “in the South until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.”

What is not widely known is that Thomas Jefferson stated that one of the reasons America needed to break with Great Britain was because of “a desire to rid America of the evil of slavery imposed on them by the British.”

“Benjamin Franklin explained that this separation from Britain was necessary since every attempt among the Colonies to end slavery had been thwarted or reversed by the British Crown.  In fact, in the years following America’s separation from Great Britain, many of the Founding Fathers who had owned slaves released them (e.g., John Dickinson, Ceasar Rodney, William Livingston, George Washington, George Wythe, John Randolph, and others).”  (The last two paragraphs are from http://www.christiananswers.net/q-wall/wal-g003.html.)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: