Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Help (2011)

Comparatively speaking, on an entertainment level, The Help succeeds handily. It's only to the extent that it aspires to loftier levels of social conscience that it fails to hit the mark.

Skeeter, a budding writer has just graduated from Old Miss. She returns to her home town in Mississippi to find that she doesn't fit in with her old friends, all young junior league wives who are more concerned with their hemline and social status than in sincere interaction. To them appearance is everything and rightly so, because very little seems to lie beneath it. We don't know exactly who Skeeter was before heading off to college. She has girlhood pictures of herself with these other women still on display in her room. She must have prized their company at one time. But today, she is a sharp contrast to them, even on the outside, in her simple clothes, and fresh, uncovered freckles standing out under a mass of untamed curls.

Skeeter's mother, Charlotte, weakened by cancer along with the social clique chicks are both eager to bring Skeeter in line and to buff away her unconventional edges by marrying her off to the nearest eligible bachelor. Charlotte's motive is probably just to see to ensure Skeeter's security before she dies. But Skeeter's peers probably feel threatened by her independence, as people like that don't just fear challenge, they're afraid of contrast. They don't feel safe in their own shoes unless everyone else has a pair. Their beliefs aren't stable unless they see them reflected and amplified in everything and everyone around them.

All of the women have domestic help. These black workers are not slaves, but they're still treated very much like property. They're paid. Aibileen, for example, makes $182 a month to clean Elizabeth Leefolt's house, cook her meals and care for her child. But it's not an employer/employee relationship. Complete deference is required. As maid, Aibileen's job description requires that she either be ignored or demoralized by her employers. There's little in between.

Of course, Skeeter's relationship with "the help" is different. She relates to them as friends, acknowledging not only their presence, but every service they bestow with quick appreciation, much to the annoyance of her peers.

At a luncheon, Skeeter notices how dismissively the maids are treated and decides to write a book from their perspective. Though Skeeter may never have been like the women she grew up with, she's known them all of her life. As an inquisitive, intelligent person, she certainly must have grown up with an awareness of racism and developed views against it in her 20-some years, but that's not apparent at the start of the movie.

When she crosses the heavily marked social lines, she seems surprised that everyone seems to mind. In fact, she is so oblivious as to what a difficult situation she is placing Aibileen in when she repeatedly seeks her out for information that I began to be irritated with her. Skeeter was not only compromising Aibileen's livelihood, but perhaps her life. Skeeter does not seem to fully realize that just being seen in the kitchen chatting with Aibileen sparks disapproval from everyone around (white and black, actually), let alone when she seeks her out on public streets.

Thirty minutes into the movie, Skeeter finally does some research and learns there are laws on the Mississippi books about races intermingling. Not only are they not suppose to socialize or use the same facilities, they can't even use the same books. Even inanimate objects must be segregated. Books that have been used by black students can never be passed on to whites and vice versa. After Skeeter finds this out, she becomes a little less discreet in contacting Aibileen, but having grown up in that society all of her life, it's not clear that this was something she had to learn.

In several cliched scenes we learn that Skeeter had a beloved maid of her own. Constantine raised her. Casting Cicely Tyson in this predictable role served only to pile on the hackneyed. She automatically brings all the pathos of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman into the story with her and more, because real time has taken the place of the make up needed to age her for that movie. We see a flashback where Constantine, face worn and elegant like fine-carved wood, comforts and counsels an awkward young Skeeter and gives her faith in herself when no one else understands. In college, Skeeter is told that Constantine left the Phelan family to go live in Chicago with her daughter. Once home, Skeeter quickly figures out this is a lie, but everyone withholds the truth about Constantine's disappearance. Being an intrepid reporter who loved Constantine dearly, you'd think she'd probe further and demand to know what happened to the woman, but meeting avoidance, she inexplicably drops her questions, 'til the movie's convenient conclusion.

At the outset of the film, the maid characterizations were so broad and their employers nastiness, so over-the-top that I felt only a comedy could survive such unrealistic handling. But as consequences became more serious, it felt more like the real world, as Skeeter and the maids eventually seemed more human and less caricature.

The movie places an uneven focus on matters I felt were mere stunts. Clearly, it would have been a deeper story, if Bryce Howard had been given a less "Mean Girls" role to play. There were comic book aspects which would have been fine -- if I'd thought them intended. But I don't believe they were. The creators probably feel they have a more substantive product on their hands than they actually presented. There's a way to weave humor into serious subject matter without making it petty and The Help does not completely succeed in finding it. Still, I was ultimately sucked in.

For one thing, when Viola Davis cried, so did I. Davis is about 20 years younger than Aibileen is said to be, but that does not detract from the performance. Initially, Aibileen is the only maid willing to speak with Skeeter, then her best friend Minnie starts to contribute to the book as well. But no one else comes forward.

Desperate for tuition money to send her twin sons to college, a fellow maid steals a ring from Hilly. Hilly has her arrested and, when the woman struggles, she is beaten by the police in front of her neighborhood. Later, Skeeter is at a soda shop and the black attendant whispers to her that she should get over to Aibileen's home immediately. When Skeeter opens Aibileen's door she is greeted by a room full of black women, all having put their personal fear aside to speak out, make a difference and protest in the least risky way they can find. The emotion of that door opening gave me chills.

I realize the movie was about working as a Southern maid in that era, not about the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. I understand why we had to stay in the characters' homes and I really didn't want to leave the homes, the small world of their lives, anyway. Still, I think the film attempts to mix apples and raisins. I related more when the characters reacted to social injustice on the broader scale (like being afraid they'd be targeted after Medgar Evers' murder) than I could when they were all upset because Minnie couldn't use her employer's toilet.

Of course, if a maid raises your child, cooks your food and cleans every inch of your home, she should be able to use your bathroom, but in the great scheme of things . . . I care about segregation in schools and restaurants and park water fountains, the bathroom at Woolworth's not the one in Mrs. Holbrook's home.

Of course, it was more than Minnie not being able to use the bathroom, it was the humiliating way that the subject was raised in the maids' presence, as if they were non-entities. We can all react to the hurt they endured, verbally disparaged on a daily basis. The forced silence, repressed anger and pain that must cut deeper, because it is unacknowledged and unexpressed. But I think the movie spotlighted the trivial once too often. There's a running gag about "the terrible awful" sin Minnie committed to avenge herself against Hilly that goes on so long that instead of offering us refreshing levity, it lowers the movie's overall tone. In related vein, a charity auction devolves into slapstick. It might be fun to see Hilly get her comeuppance, but not at the expense of believability.

For the climax, we finally learn what really happened to Constantine. Why Skeeter couldn't have tried to contact her beloved maid, her family or -- better yet, simply asked her good friend Aibileen to uncover the truth, I'll never know. But as she finishes up her book, she leaves the family and goes to her own mother for the final story. It turns out that Charlotte was being honored by a lady's circle, given an accolade she'd been seeking for years. As she serves them a celebratory dinner at her home, she is frustrated by how slow and clumsy Constantine has become with age. There's a knock at the front door and Constantine's daughter Rachael has returned home after a long absence, eager to see her mother. Embarassed by the interruption in the presence of her disapproving social set, Charlotte rebuffs Rachael, tells her to enter by the service entrance and wait in the kitchen and closes the door in her face. Rachael angrily slams open the door, enters the room and insists that she will speak to her mother now.

Constantine tries to calm Rachael and remain respectful. It's not that Charlotte deserved that respect. What's more important is that the scene was more painful for Constantine than it was embarassing for Charlotte. Standing up to the uppity women was fine, but distressing her elderly and gentle mother was unforgivable. Charlotte takes a stand and orders Rachael out. Rachael says if she leaves she's taking Constantine with her. Charlotte replies by ordering them both out of her house. Constantine is devastated. Rachael pulls her away, as she tries to hold on, her arthritic fingers scratching at the closed screen door, but Charlotte turns away from them. It's as manipulative as it is heartbreaking.

We see Constantine packing her clothes, stopping to finger the closet door where she's charted Skeeter's growth in pencil from year to year. Each line gets higher until the tall Skeeter was over Constantine's head and she has to reach up to touch the last mark. It's the only goodbye she and Skeeter will ever have. Charlotte reveals that when she sent Skeeter's brother to look for Constantine at Rachael's home in Chicago they found she had died. Of sadness, no doubt.

Like it or not, Charlotte Phelan and her children were as much a part of Constantine's family as Rachael was. We don't know anything about Rachael and can only speculate as to what made her do that? Was it jealousy? The movie starts by asking Aibileen what it was like raising other people's children when she couldn't be home with her own? Who was combing Rachael's hair when Constantine was at work lovingly brushing Skeeter's? Did a sense of rejection spur Rachael? If so, it might have been Charlotte's rejection, as much as Constantine's. Skeeter points out that she knows Charlotte loved Rachael and can't understand why she acted as she did.
Rachael must have felt spurned by the woman she'd known all of her life. She was used to racism, but it packs the most punch when it comes at you unexpectedly. It's not open bigotry that surprises most. The kind that lurks and hides causes the most damage, because it's less easily defended.

Whatever prompted Rachael, she placed her pride over her mother's well-being. I gasped at her betrayal, along with Charlotte's.

With Constantine's chapter concluded, Skeeter publishes her book, to great acclaim. Even though it is written by "anonymous" every one in town quickly deduces who the author is and identifies each thinly disguised person lambasted in its pages.

Skeeter shares her royalties with the maids. Sub-plots are tied up, some happily, some not. Aibileen is fired, not by Leefolt, her own employer, but by Hilly, Leefolt's friend and dictator. Having lost her own son, it's wrenching for Aibileen to be separated from the Leefolt's young daughter. Everything she'd worked for for decades was taken away in 10 minutes. Yet walking away from the Leefolt home, her step quickens, the tears dry and her head is filled with thought, not mourning. She knows: everyone has a story.