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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Help


“The Help” (Three Stars)

U.S.: Tate Taylor, 2011

Like smooth Kentucky Bourbon or hot cornbread and jambalaya, or like Ray Charles’ great bluesy versions of “Georgia on my Mind” and “America the Beautiful,” The Help is old-fashioned, flavorsome stuff — old-fashioned in many good ways, and a few not-so-good ones.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, and based on the bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, it feels like one of those warm, feisty, character-rich books that strikes a public chord even if some critics remain uncharmed: the story of a group of African -America women servants, who work for the city’s elite white families. These are quiet (at work), expert women-servants who clean the white folks’ homes, cook their food and raise their babies, and who here participate in a quiet revolt against the traditional conspiracy of silence about the truth of racial matters down South. That kitchen/household Dixie insurgency is spearheaded by two old friends Aibeleen Clark and Minny Jackson, played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both of whom are about as good as you can possibly be in this kind of movie.

Aibeleen and Minny take their stands quietly, then loudly, by telling their work yarns (often unflattering to their employers, some downright dirty), to one of the most liberal and free-thinking daughters of that elite: returning college student and aspiring writer Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone). Skeeter is stubborn and rebellious, but not Confederate. (Stone is pretty wonderful too, playing here in a more dramatic key than her recent string of saucy contemporary sex comedies: Easy A, Friends with Benefits and Crazy, Stupid, Love.)

Indeed both Aibeleen and Skeeter, whose personality and future life patterns we can see forming during the course of the story, are among those classically Southern female observer/outsiders in which American literature (and bestsellerdom) is rich — from Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird to Celie Johnson in The Color Purple. The story of The Help is an obvious one, but that doesn’t make it any less heartening when Skeeter, Aibeleen and the others break the silence and blow the town open with their book.

These three actresses (and one more) are the movie’s standouts. But the entire film — scripted and directed by Tate Taylor, whose unusual circle of best friends include both author Stockett and actress Spencer — is full of excellent actors and juicy actor’s moments. That‘s its major strength — even though The Help, perhaps inevitably, tends to present its characters in shades of black and white: as heroines, villainesses, victims and in-betweeners among the women, as tolerant guys, bigots or go-along-with-the-crowders among the men.

 The movie and the cast pump life into all of them. The bad girls, starchy prejudiced matrons or sneaky debutante types with bouffant hairdos, include Bryce Dallas Howard as the nefarious richgirl Hilly Holbrook. The in-betweeners boast Allison Janney as Skeeter’s well-meaning but sometimes appearance-bound mom Charlotte, and Jessica Chastain (the earth mother in Terry Malick’s The Tree of Life) as the Marilyn Monroe-ish semi-social outcast Celia Foote. The heroines include Aibeleen, Minny, Skeeter, their fellow tale-tellers, and (also the movie’s chief victim), the splendid Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson), the elderly Phelan family servant who raised Skeeter, and who, in one scene, just about breaks your heart.

The men are less important — this is a woman’s movie after all (albeit one with universal appeal) — but they include Chris Lowell as Stuart Whitworth, a seemingly tolerant beau, Mike Vogel as Celia’s forgiving husband Johnny Foote, David Oyelowo  (the nasty corporate guy in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as local spiritual leader Preacher Green, and Brian Kerwin and Wes Chatham as Skeeter’s smoothie brothers Robert and Carlton Phelan.

There isn’t a bad performance in that bunch and several superb ones, which should be some kind of tribute to Taylor. And they’re the kind of roles actors usually love: We see the servants unburden themselves and tell their stories, the resultant ruckus, and the change wrought in Aibeleen, Minny, Skeeter and the others — including Skeeter’s mom (though we don’t see much of the stories). And we see the appalled response of the town’s ample supply of hypocrites, phonies and bigots. It’s a simple setup and delivery, but there are lots of characters (dozens and dozens) and director Taylor loves showing them off.

So, what’s bad about all this? Well, a political purist mightargue that this is another case (as some see in Glory), where the problems of blacks are dubiously solved by heroic white people, i.e. Skeeter. They might also complain about the Southern black slang and lingo used by the script. I don’t agree fully with those objections. To me, the characters, who are obviously exaggerated and, if they’re black, tend to speak in exaggerated Deep South styles, do ring true. More than that, they capture our imagination and our affections. The actresses are all obviously taking relish in their roles, and it’s clear that problems like this should be solved by everybody, or at least as much of us as possible. Anyway, the vulnerable black servants who participate in Skeeter’s project, are, in the end, showing more courage than rich white privileged Skeeter, who will be okay even if the whole town turns against her. (Not that Skeeter’s moxie shouldn’t be celebrated too.)

I‘m also happy that somebody,  during our deluge of blood and guts and fantasy and kid stuff,  bothers to make a big Hollywood release, about adults and families and important social and political issues. Some of The Help is a little crude and obvious, and the gag about Minny’s special pie — an alleged chocolate dessert to which she has added an unusual secret ingredient — is milked past the point of no return. But that mix of comedy and drama, poignancy and vulgarity, is probably a good part of what made the book popular, and it works for a lot of the movie too.

What works best for The Help are its strong feeling and deep sympathy for the lives of these black lower-class Southern people of color of the early ’60s, before the Civil Rights bill and the vast cultural shoft. It’s suggested by some that the movie is flawed by its double perspective: with the events seen though the eyes of both the African-American “Help” and the upper-class Caucasian writer Skeeter. But the film is about Aibileen and her friends, and Skeeter and her book. It’s about a collaboration between people from different worlds, and about what Skeeter learns — and how she and others are changed. The movie doesn’t strike me as condescending, except perhaps to some of its white villains. And it’s hard to feel sorry for them, or for their models.

What also resonates in us most strongly and movingly are the performances of Viola Davis, a known quantity, and Octavia Spencer, an unknown one. Davis, with her great grave eyes and impeccable grasp of emotion and her inner dignity, and Spencer, a roughhouse dramatic comedienne who looks a bit like a much slimmer Hattie McDaniel (Mammy in Gone With the Wind), but acts with contemporary smarts and sass, create two people so real and pungently alive that they sweep the whole movie along with them.

Social issues always play better if they’re embodied by deep, engaging characters and a good story and even a little cornball humor. So Bravo Viola. Cheers to Octavia, Emma, and Cicely Tyson. And, as for Tate Taylor, Kathryn Stockett and all the other rebels, pass Minny’s merde-mousse pie (to somebody else) and pass the cornbread and honey to us. Dee-licious.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon