Tuesday, November 22, 2011
What The Tracks Bisect
These weeks on reserve are highly variable. I'm on call here in Louisville for a 12 hour period each day, and the rules say I must be in uniform at the airport ready to go within 90 minutes of receiving a call. Sometimes you're snagged right away and stay out for the entire stretch of days, and other times--like this week so far--the phone doesn't ring. So what to do with this free time? Well, eat out a lot, get in a good walk each day and see a lot of movies. There are a hell of a lot worse ways to spend a week.
Tonight's film is Tate Taylor's brilliant adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's book of the same name, The Help. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early '60s, the film tells the story of a group of African-American maids employed in white Households and of a young white woman who wants to tell their story. The backdrop is of course one of lingering Jim Crow and of the racially-motivated assassinations that marked the civil rights movement, and we are quickly (tho fairly gently) reminded that this simple idea--an exposé of life as a black maid in a white household--is nowhere near as simple and innocent in this setting as it might sound.
Emma Stone plays Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a white woman recently returned to Jackson from college and integrating herself back into social life. Skeeter was raised by the black family maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson), but returns from school to find Constantine suddenly gone from the household. Constantine was as constant a presence in Skeeter's life as anyone else in her family, and was probably the single biggest influence in Skeeter's budding character as the child became a woman. Her absence is, well, like an unexplained disappearance of a family member. In addition to not being able to get a straight answer out of her scattered mother (Alison Janney) about what happened to Constantine, skeeter is repeatedly exposed to subtle and overt racism toward the maids and gardeners at her friends' houses, and she decides to try and write a book about this reality as told from the servants' point of view. Her efforts are kept secret initially, and indeed none of the maids are initially willing to risk their jobs--and, as civil rights turmoil breaks out all around them, perhaps their lives--to tell what they really feel. But as the repeated acts of discrimination and hate crimes occur all around them the group gradually come to feel that their story needs to be told. More than this, it MUST be told.
The two primary maid characters are Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), both of whom are really off-the-charts fabulous. I've seen and loved Viola Davis in several past films (Solaris, Doubt, State of Play), but I'm coming to think there is a force to her presence that might elevate her to goddess status. I think in person I might be actively afraid of her, she just seems that formidable. Her role here is a role of a lifetime, I think, playing a strong and intelligent woman entrusted with the raising of another family's children--children she dearly loves, but who must come before her own children's needs--while occupying an inferior place in that same household and in society in general. In the best of circumstances this secondary status is subtle and gnawing, and often it manifests itself as pure, sickening tyranny. I know that racism is alive and well today--look at the Tea Party's treatment of President Obama--but to see it practiced so pervasively and even solidified into law and every social code is revolting to even the most embryonic sense of justice. To paraphrase Lincoln, if this is not wrong then nothing is wrong. And yet this is our history; it is who we were and who some of us still are.
For all the heavy material, the film is shot through with comedy and most of the story passes quite entertainingly. There's this very serious sinew running throughout, but we are given a lot of laughs and small triumphs along the way. Life is like that, I think.
But as a white guy in America I must be careful talking about what I think life is really like for anyone but myself. Films like The Help do an immense service of putting us in the shoes of someone whose path through life was likely very different from our own, and that seems the most valuable of lessons.