Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Movie Log: The Help

I am not an accomplished movie critic, but a word about the movie “The Help”. As you may know, we are movie junkies and are regulars to our Cinemark theater because they have the best root beer and popcorn. OK, we have invested heavily in the discount refillable soda cups and popcorn bucket too. We are, after all, cheap bastards when we have to be. We normally don’t attend a movie on the week it premiers but it was a very hot day at the Saraceni Summer (Fall, Winter and Spring) residence and it was the only movie I could tell raised up to my level of intelligence that we hadn’t already seen. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the prequel to Planet of the Apes, Glee in 3D, two guys swapping their bodies and lives (already done) and let’s not forget Smurfs in 3D. And when did we have to suffer through preview after preview of new television shows . It’s the movies for God sake!
The Help is not what you expect. It is not (as my co-worker Tameka pointed out) a Harry Potter movie which follows the book but more a sense of how the book came about. The characters are there but it is more historical than personal. I have not read the book by Kathryn Stockett but I do now.

My daughter first noticed that, as the theater filled up, the crowd appeared to be made up of older folks. Happily, there were many young people present who needed to see this but I saw lots of grey-haired types gingerly making their way up the steep steps to their seats. I wasn’t sure if they were there to relive the past or condemn it but, if they were locals, these folks would have been the demographic of the period the movie addresses. 
Set in 1962-1963 Jackson, Mississippi, the movie takes you for a very serious and sometimes humorous look at the rise of the civil rights movement through the actions and eyes of the African American maids just slightly removed from indentured servitude who cleaned the homes and raised the children of the white wealthy families of Jackson.

Skeeter is the impressionable and clearly anti-racist young woman fresh out of Ole’Miss with a desire to become a great writer taking a job as a copy writer for the local paper. In her role there, she decides to write a piece about the secret lives of Jackson’s wealthiest families through the eyes of their maids. A journey which boldly demonstrates both the influence of the African American experience on these families as well as the blatant racism holdovers of plantation life, the Civil War and Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s that still gripped the deep south well into the late 1960s (some say those days haven’t quite left us yet).
The two lead roles for the maids are Aibileen and Minny (aptly played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer respectively) who take us on a roller coaster of emotions as we watch them, at once, single-handedly run the homes and lives of their employers (or owners depending on your perspective), tend to their own families and the resulting dehumanizing emotional and physical abuse they receive because of their race and perceived lack of place in society. It really makes you want to throw something at the screen when this happens. Bring extra napkins, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Now, I can only hope the author was being sincere when she threw in a smattering of characters who could clearly see the handwriting on the wall and could see that a partied was heading for the door. But they were outnumbered, if you will, by the times they were in and it was more a demur than a real protest. But, like all societal changes, it had to start somewhere. 
I enjoyed the movie a lot, even in those uncomfortable moments when your own race were acting like complete asses on the screen. You really get to hate them and the ignorance they carried around with them like Coleridge’s Albatross. I spent most of my life in what I felt was a pretty enlightened part of the world (Southern California) but I did understand the tensions within the minority communities in my hometown and was made aware, on several occasions, that racism was still alive and well even there in the late 20th Century. Most folks in police work would tell you it’s a constant issue wherever you work.

Now that I’m in Texas, I see that the pall of southern racism still simmers at a low temperature and although the world is changing, the remnants of racist policies still hang in the air like summer humidity. There are days it isn’t present but then there are days it’s so thick, you could cut it with a knife. Old sensibilities and attitudes are hard to break but things are getting better.
As an amateur historian, I loved how they were able to interject the civil rights movement into the story without beating us over the head with it. References to the King marches in Atlanta and Birmingham, the assassination of Kennedy and Medgar Evers in 1963 were almost subtle to a fault yet provided the historical relevance of the movie in that struggle in that slice of Jackson, Mississippi.

Here’s my advice. Don’t go to see it as a commentary on race relations or the civil rights movement. See it as a period piece which has, as its central theme, how a small group of people can empower themselves to change the way they live and how people perceive one another. Even if it hurts.
Two things to watch out for, Minny’s pies and “Minny don’t burn no chicken!” See you at the movies.

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