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Entries in Help/The [2011] (1)

Saturday
Sep032011

The Help (2011)

Almost Amos

How embarrassing. Yesterday, based on the results of my first "Send Me to the Movies" poll, I set out to watch The Help. Ten minutes from the theatre, my car blew two flat tires, nearly sending me face-first into a pylon and ending my brief, shining career as an unpaid film critic. The long and short of it is that I'm okay, but I didn't get to fulfill my end of the polling process.

Fortunately, when I got home twelve hours later (don't ask), I found the following message in my Inbox from a lovely, long-time reader who goes by "@merican Mom". She took me to task for my snide comments about having to go see The Help; her eloquent tirade is itself a review. She's graciously allowed me to share her unique look at the number-one movie in the country, three-weeks running (the text appears just as I received it, save for bolding, hyperlinks and the like)...

Dear Mr. Simmons:

It's nice that your letting your readers decide what movie you're going to see this weekend. But could you please leave out the commentery (I know, hard for you to do! LOL). I know you love horror movies but you don't have to put down a fantastically amazing important movie like The Help just because youre afraid you might "catch feelings" for it.

I've never written to you before but I"m a big fan. A little about me. I'm a stay-at-home Mom, who loves all three of the kids she raised and sent off to college. I wasn't around for the civil rights movement but all of my black friends who went to see this profound uplifting gripping Film--some of whom were just babies when the Help took place--assure me that its an accurate portrayal of how things were back then.

Then is the 1960's, in Mississippi. A girl named Skeeter played by that cute and sassy Emma Stone has returned from college to find that her old group of girlfriends has all gotten married and settled in to a life of racist complacence. She was always different from the other girls growing up and she never seemed to realize the segragation in her home town until she go t some of that good old fashioned "book learning".

Because everyone's pretty well off, they have black maids ("The Help") to raise theyr kids and clean theyre houses and such. THese are the invisible ones, the quiet but strong and noble ancestors of slaves and before that dignified African Royalty who are now forced to use separated bathrooms and take orders like they are themeselves children. Skeeter wants to be a writer in New York and gets that firecracker Mary Steenburgen (whose a publisher in the big Apple) to agree to let her write a book about these womesn lives if she can get enough of them to come forward with their stories.

Skeeter enlists the help of Aibileen the maid of Elizabeth, another high society type who thinks beinga Mom is about looking pretty and attending Bridge Club. Aibileen is played by Viola Davis, who I have loved for a long time, she brings a quiet noble dignity to this uplifting inspirational feel-good motion picture--as a mom who's own son was killed in a work accident while she was taking care of another family's kids.

At the center of this high society is the evil Hilly Holbrook. This is the best role Bryce Dallas Howard has ever played. I could feel the evilness dripping off of her a she painted Hilly with big menacing broad strokes. In some movies the villains you have to look for subbtle clues as to if they're bad people or not, but not with Hilly. She's mean off the bat and she gets worse and worse. I went to The Help with three girlfriends, and after almost every line of Hilly's we collectively shook our heads and said things like "Oh, my God!" and "That's awful!" and "Can you believe it?".

The one confusing thing about The Help is that there's another actress in it named Jessica Chastain, who plays a girl the other high society girls think is trashy but she's just mis understood named Celia. She looks almost exactly like Bryce Dallas Howard and when Celia first showed up on screen I wondered why Hilly was wearing a blonde wig and talking funny. Later in the movie when their on screen for the first time together, I thought it was some kind of Avatar computer graphics miracle or something, but in the credist I fount out it was two people. She's a great actress, though.

What I really loved about this ground breaking socially relevant educational Film is the way in which its' all those things but it doesn't make you think about what life was really like back then--ie really bad for black people. Because everyone in the movie is like a cartoon character it makes the dark issues (sorry, I don't mean that as offensive) seem important but not as much of a downer as if they'd showed any real danger towards the characters. Anything remotely dangerous happens off screen or is only talked about, leaving much more reoom for the sassy black characters to be sassy and black and for the white characters to be either really evil and really stupid or--pardon the awful term-- far more "progressive" then you'd expect for back then.

When I found out that Nate Berkus helped produce this movie, my girlfriends and I couldn't wait to go see it. He's our favorite daytime TV show host and he doesn't make you think about underlying depressing issues like Ellen DeGeneres does; instead he's all about helping people with makeovers and making the best no-crust PB and Js for your back to school lunches for your kids'. And this movie is just like that. It's gorgeous to look at, and is the exact kind of not-for adults movie that's perfect for teaching, say, a ten-year-old about civil rights (we even have a nickname for Mr. Berkus: we call him "BrOprah").

The one thing I didn't care for in the movie is the plotline with Celia and her new maid, Minny, played by Octavia Spencer. It's only about twenty five minutes (out of two-and-a half hours--what a value!) of the movie, but it was really distracting because all of the other actors in The Help are really big--like I said, cartoon characters--but these women barely even act. It's like I was watching real people grow on the screen and express honest emotions. It doesn't work at all and I just wish they would of been more like the other characters who you know where they're going to end up the second they show up on screen.

Cicely Tyson also pops up as an old maid and my friend Lisbeth thought her scenes were really moving, but she's the kind of person who likes serious things, what she calls "nuance" or "depth"--which usually means "depressing". I didn't care for Tyson at all; like Spencer and Chastain, no one apparently told her what kind of movie she was in.

Aside from that, this movie rocks. Viola Davis is a shoe-in for Best Actress this year. You can tell because in every single scene she's trying real hard to make each one one of those clips they play at the Academy Awards when they're announcing the people int the categorys. She reminds me of Will Smith in that Matt Damon golf movie where he showed up to teach privileged white people how to be decent and also win at golf. Until I saw the Help, that was my favorite life changing aspirational brilliant movie about race relations.

I love the way this Film is like what the kids call "Metta" in that it's about how black people weren't seen or considered people back then and they're kind of the same way in this movie. I thought this was going to be a movie from the black perspective, but it's really about the white girls and how they show blacks that it's okay to let their inherent saint-like dignity show through. There's only one bad black guy in the whole Film--Minny's abusive husband--but you never see him and you always get the feeling that things will be okay in the end.

Speaking of husbands, I like the way that white men are treated as props in The Help. It's about time someone painted 50s and 60s husbands as just alcoholic suit-wearing biggots. There's one guy who you think is going to be okay, he's got a crush on Skeeter and she likes him for awhile (the film makers make you think that skeeter might be a Lesbian but thankfully they just make her a career women so there's less to explain to your kids). But he's a racist, too, and I like that (not that I'm racist, I'm just glad they didn't give him too much dimension so that the focus stays on the girl-power).

THe Help is so good that it forces you to turn off your brain when it starts. For example, I was so into the story and the over-the-top acting that when Minny gives Hilly a pie baked with human poop I didn't question how Hilly could have eaten two whole pieces and raved about how great it tasted without noticing that she was eating crap. Those Old South/Cotton Field recipes must have been amazing to cover up the smell (believe me, as a Mom, there's no disguizing the stench of feces. No disguising.). In fact, Hilly doesn't know what she's eating until Minny tells her! Normally I'd be like, what is this silly American Pie b.s.? But this classy uniting bold movie does wonders to common sense.

The best movie I can compare this to is The Blind Side. It's likea fantasy or a parable about how it's okay to be privileged and white as long as you're charitable to those who weren't born as fortunate as you. It's about giving a leg up to the "racially disadvantaged"--as my friend CiCi likes to say (she should know: out of our book club, she's the one with the most adopted mixed-race kids). You can tell the movies' impacting America because when I left the theatre--which was full of white people looking to be educated; really, there wasn't one person of color in the whole place--everyone was crying and hugging and shaking their heads at how awful life was before we as a country got rid of racism.

SO I hope you'll put your cinacyism aside and go see The Help. I know you like to be challenged and you look for honesty in movies but sometimes the best honesty comes from not thinking about the ugly parts of history. Sometimes it's about laughing at the cute way the maids pronounce "children" (me and the rest of our Riverboat Gambling Club, "The Moneyed Moms", now only refer to our kids as "chirrens"; it's our inside joke), or watching a goofy white guy in a tie and glasses "get down" at a high society dance. The Help is an allagory; it's not meant to do anything but make us feel safe and good about history without ever having to show it.