Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Change is Gonna Come: The Help Offers Flawed Hope

As an aspiring journalist fresh out of college in the 1960s, I found a job with a weekly newspaper in Brookline, Massachusetts. I wrote a column called Around the Town with Babs, a nom de plume that various reporters before me had assumed over the years. The task was to ferret out mundane local gossip, such as:Stanley Lager of Richardson Terrace has been promoted to general manager at Filene's Department Store.Or “Elm Street residents Jane and Bruce Ganz are heading to Florida for the winter.” (Attention: thieves!)

As an aspiring journalist fresh out of college in the 1960s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan finds a job with a weekly newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. She writes a column called Ask Miss Myrna, a nom de plume that various reporters before her had assumed over the years. The task is to ferret out mundane local housekeeping advice, such as how to avoid tears while chopping onions.

Tears, however, are likely to flow while watching this somewhat predictable story of the Deep South unfold in a movie titled The Help. The uplifting weepie, adapted by director Tate Taylor from Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling 2009 novel of the same name, focuses on black employees who toil in the trenches of America’s racial divide. Chronologically, the fictitious Skeeter’s Myrna is just a few years before my Babs reality and in a part of the country that had barely evolved from slavery back then. The “colored” domestics who populate the film are still too intimidated to participate in the nascent civil rights movement. Often occupying plantations that are a reminder of the not-so-distant past, most of their white bosses might as well be living in the 1860s.

Emma Stone
A graduate of “Ole Miss” (The University of Mississippi in Oxford, 150 miles from Jackson), 22-year-old Skeeter (Emma Stone) has returned to her conservative hometown with a different perspective on the roles of minorities and women. She intends to become a professional writer. Her high school friends have long since married well, with Negro servants in uniforms on hand to do the cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. This leaves the imperious ladies in bouffant hairstyles plenty of time to play bridge and attend meetings of the charitable Junior League to raise funds for starving African children (some humanitarian disasters are never cured).

It’s not clear why Skeeter, whose strawberry blond locks are now untamed to match her newfound social conscience, would be so suddenly aghast that her former classmates remain bigoted snobs. College was less than a three-hour drive away. Didn’t she visit during holidays and summer breaks? Increasingly alienated from a world that once seemed normal, she begins interviewing their maids, first for her column and later for a book on the inequities in this line of work. Chief among them is Aibileen (Viola Davis), with a long career of caring for little kids whose biological mothers are too busy being hoity-toity and/or simply feel indifferent. That’s the case with Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly); her toddler daughter receives unconditional love only from Aibileen.

Octavia Spencer & Viola Davis
The self-anointed leader of the wealthy pack, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), comes across as a slightly stereotypical worst-of-the-worst, so callous that her own doddering mom (Sissy Spacek) is shipped off to a nursing home for insubordination. She’s launched a “sanitary campaign” to make sure black bottoms never again touch the pristine toilet seats of Caucasians. She forces her own maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer), to use a segregated water closet built outdoors, even in the midst of a violent thunderstorm. This is a bathroom tragedy that’s far more intelligent than the gross bathroom humor Stockett and Taylor periodically rely on for revenge against the racists.

The only unbiased upscale woman around is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a Marilyn Monroe wannabe desperate for acceptance by the young society matrons who keep rejecting her as white trash. To convince her husband that he has a wife who can manage their sprawling household, she hires Minny and the two form an unusual bond, leading to some of the funniest scenes in The Help. Much funnier than the numerous broad strokes, such as when Hilly’s prize-winning front yard is overtaken by donated commodes – another instance of potty humor.

Skeeter, meanwhile, has persuaded the reluctant Aibileen and Milly to enumerate the injustices endured under the thumb of the ruling class. They’re guaranteed anonymity but, in a place where everyone knows everyone else's business, probably at risk nonetheless. Along the way, in June of 1963, activist Medgar Evers is murdered in Jackson by the White Citizens Council, to which some of the film’s male characters possibly belong. But the ugliest details of the era are not fully explored in this Dreamworks production about a girl of privilege liberating the less fortunate, much the way Hollywood has always tackled similar subject matter.

Yes, Skeeter is brave and her cohorts are exceedingly courageous. Yet, despite the prominence of Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders and other pioneers in the struggle for equality, she’s unaccountably rather tentative and clueless. Her comparative enlightenment supposedly evolved during four years at Ole Miss, where James Meredith was not allowed to enroll until federal intervention forced the educational institution to desegregate in 1962, a flashpoint that sparked campus riots and the shooting deaths of two people. (One of them was a journalist, something that should have turned Skeeter into a raging radical; Guess I ought to remember this is only a movie.) Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is among the period tunes heard on the soundtrack but a better choice might have been his “Oxford Town,” which specifically addresses the situation.

Allison Janney & Emma Stone
Both a wildly popular novel and off to a roaring start at the box office, The Help apparently appeals to a generation with no recollection of the times that were definitely a-changin’. Dreamworks has added a tagline that reads, “change begins with a whisper,” a word that implies the secrets and lies that allow democracy to fester. Saved from trivializing history thanks to strong performances by Davis, Spencer and Chastain, the film might have done a better job with sociopolitical facts if a few of the distracting subplots were ditched. Do we really need Minny’s unseen abusive husband? Does Skeeter’s mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) need to be suffering from cancer?

Skeeter applies for a publishing gig in New York City, a move that would surely transform her even more profoundly is a potential sequel. Perhaps, her destiny is to become the Mississippi equivalent of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) on Mad Men. A once-prim Southern Belle hovering on the edge of the cutting edge, she’d stand at the threshold of a decade that redefined Myrna and Babs forever.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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