Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Help (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

"The Help"

Going in to see "The Help" with such high praise from friends and acquaintances, I'll admit that I somehow had an urge to be a lone wolf. I don't know why. Perhaps it was the glimpse I had of the previews, fearing a sanitized Dreamworks/Disney view of 1950s pre Civil Rights horrors, of everyone coming together, of bluebirds singing in the trees despite unabashed racism, inequality and the violent beating down of anyone black, Jewish or otherwise not fitting into an Anglo-Saxon ideology. 
History hurts.

My fears,  in some ways, were well founded. Everything is in technicolor. A sparkling white table. A notebook. A hand writing feverishly taking down the wisdom of a black maid, Abileen. (Viola Davis) Abileen knows the score from the get go and we already can tell that she is the real  mother / heroine in the film.  It is not the free thinking Skeeter (Emma Stone) with the big, sad puppy dog eyes which once again made me think of a Walter Keane painting. 
And yes, the story does unfold at least to  my eyes in a "Fried Green Tomatoes" / "Forrest Gump" quasi tv movie fashion. We have Hilly, a Waspy all too controlling racist female villain with no redeeming qualities at all. (Bryce Dallas Howard). Were the 1950s this one dimensional in its people, be they hate-filled with racism or pioneers in rational thought and human decency? I wonder. 
But despite these pitfalls,  it is the characterizations of Abileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer)  that give the film its much needed verve and kick.  These two are a pleasure. They work together with ease and their chemistry is perfect. The rest of the characters, especially Skeeter, seem a bit contrived and on auto-pilot. None of the white girls do anything interesting, they just chatter about like candy-striped hens drinking their cokes. Why must the roles be this generic and flat?
I'll argue that the films of John Waters ("Hairspray") talk in a more provocative way about the depressing  evils of racism. Remember Debbie Harry's character, Velma? She's the spitting image of Hilly, more ridiculous of course, but yet more real. Waters knows the sadness of history. He may lampoon his characters, but his white Status Quo sneers twist and shout and do not  disappoint.
I mention John Waters for a reason: the pivotal moment of the pie episode is when the movie leaps with an irreverent life and becomes (at least for the moment) released from the Mainstream. Mr. Waters' influence is clearly in evidence. And Hilly's comeuppance provides some welcome spontaneity.
If I can offer two reasons to see  "The Help" they are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. We feel for them and their facial expressions  alone tell stories of fatigue and joy, of history and hope, much more than any verbal narrative. And if we already know what's coming around the screen: a smug face contorted  in bigotry, or some Mary Steenburgan mother coming to the door for a righteous battle, we can count on the compelling charisma of Abileen and Minnie to let us in on what lies behind the kitchen's closed doors.

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