DIRECTED BY TATE TAYLOR
STARRING: VIOLA DAVIS, EMMA STONE, OCTAVIA SPENCER, BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD, SISSY SPACEK, ALLISON JANNEY, AHNA O’REILLY, CHRIS LOWELL, MARY STEENBURGEN with MIKE VOGEL and JESSICA CHASTAIN
I have a similar question with 'the Help' as I get with War movies or any Army camp movie for that matter. How does an actor get cast? There is a stereotype, yes. It’s an administration thing than just a movie cliché. It’s called diversity. Like Ving Rhames and the Maggie Qs of the ‘Mission Impossible’ series. Comes right down to the ‘Transformers’ and every American ensemble blockbuster franchise, my, that’s a long name. Every wide-release in Hollywood has in itself a diversity program. Actors are set-pieces. You take one out; you write another in with a different skill set. You change the gameplay accordingly. Like how Tom Cruise became Angelina Jolie in a gender-changed ‘Salt.’
Let me tell you why I started off on that completely arbitrary note when I begin to review what could be the second-best American feel-good movie of the year (‘Win Win’ is my first, and I’m not counting ‘the Descendants’). Mainstream cinema today is so purportedly race-indifferent and has this Liberal-Democrat pose of reaching out to all because, in that, they find a win-win situation. You get points for being secular. You get a bigger audience. That’s like scoring twice on the same shot. The Media demands such facilitation from the studios – I’ve read reviews in some glossy magazines where the reviewer was disappointed with the film’s racist stance. It happens in romantic comedies, more often than not. They need Black characters. They need Gay characters. It’s a political stratagem as much as it is a sensibility criterion that needs fulfilment.
American society, or even World society for that matter, has become a fabric of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic threads inter-woven to inseparable proportion that it becomes absurdly insensitive, almost mindless to exclude. Office circles, friend circles, baseball teams even. Everything has everyone in a bizarre sort of fill in a time of America’s first Black President. To put it simply, America now is what India has always been. A mix of races and religion brought together by legislation, like adamant kids and a kindergarten teacher who schools them on how to behave. Some still defy, some never learn. Most tolerate. A few even go on to appreciate, in the randomness that we call a society which, ironically, has been perpetrated by organization.
Let me come to my question, being well aware of how much I’ve digressed from it. As inseparable (I’ve used the word again, I know) parts of a cosmopolitan whole, how would one cast actors into roles in as polarized a scenario as the early ‘50s, staying faithful to the racial stereotypes prevalent back then as well as keeping a check on levels of drama that the viewer doesn’t get the feeling that he’s being force-fed? Racial tension still does exist; even the celebrities have the well-worded Mr. Mel Gibson in their midst, not to mention the entire Republican front (Sarah Palin among others) that cringes at the mention of homosexuality. Of course, that’s an entirely different subject and a fresh new demographic (with overlaps, of course), so I’d rather not head there.
Think of David Strathairn, who played the left end Edward R. Murrow in ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ (2005) in contrast with the Ginsberg-biopic ‘Howl’ (2010), where he plays the opposition in the Obscenity trials. Which one is he? And how good is personal adherence/fondness to the betterment of the character played? Like I always say, anyone can play the porn-star. But it took Sasha Grey to actually be one.
I speak for Bryce Dallas Howard who plays Hilly Holbrook, who’s so phobic, it’s cruel. Like Sandra Bullock in ‘Crash’, if it helps relate. She’s the rich girl with the right kind of friends and a forum that supports her bid for separate bathrooms for black housemaids. ‘Separate, but Equal’, she says. Kind of like a mean girl taken seriously because the story demands it. The movie in itself is a chick-flick that’s sensitized, on one level. Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Whelan (Emma Stone) is the conscious writer-type who stays afloat when the rest prefer to drown. Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly) leans to the opposition too, waveringly, while her little Baby Mae Mobley joins Skeeter along with her own nanny, the wise old Aibileen (Viola Davis), pronounced like the Chuck Berry song ‘Maybellene.’
The housemaids have a circle of their own. Aibileen is joined by the comic, wild-at-heart Minny (Octavia Spencer) and her quiet and desperate replacement Yule Mae (Aunjanue Ellis) at Hilly’s house, who keeps a low profile to ensure payment of her twin sons’ tuition at College. Spencer’s Minny, on the other hand, is the cocky, confident maid who puts her foot down. Not to the best of consequences, though. A show of cheek gets her fired and blacklisted almost, which means Hilly had made sure she wouldn’t get employed by anyone else. Except by the crazy Ms. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who’s married so big she needs a cook to impress. Chastain, a young actress of climbing reputation (‘Take Shelter’, ‘Jolene’), fills in for Amy Adams, coming out immensely likeable, treading the line between innocence and stupidity, going both ways to the best of her ability. She's a delight.
Emma Stone answers a hypothetical question with her performance as the sturdy Ms. Skeeter. How would it be if we sent Emma Stone to the ‘50s? It’s not even a strong accent, she doesn’t manage a hundredth of Meryl Streep. She’s still amazing. She’s someone, let me restate, who has carried the weight of an entire movie on her shoulders. This is one of the kind of roles that you know you’ve always dreamt about only when you’ve accomplished it and watch yourself on screen. There’s no way to describe this tomboy than to call her an Emma Stone. She’s dressed different. She speaks different, occasionally breaking. She smokes. She’s the writer who has grit than vision, which comes but only with help. It’s dear Aibileen who steers the ship. Stone’s Skeeter merely pushes it to water. I hope you understand what I’m saying.
I wondered if there’s anyone else old enough to play Aibileen – Viola Davis seemed so perfect. She’s like the grandmother who’s as funny as she has sob stories to tell, meshed together into an affecting, not-too-melodramatic performance. I’ve watched very little of Davis, just two movies, to be honest. One is ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story.’ The other is ‘Law Abiding Citizen.’ The rest, I’ve heard of. From what I’ve seen of her, I know she can raise an eyebrow; literally. Davis joins the likes of Patricia Clarkson, Maggie Smith and Dianne Wiest in my terms of endearment as Supporting Actress. Playing lead this time, she does well to not go over the top. Her Aibileen is sweet, subtle and strongly-worded. Had Mae Mobely been a little older and a boy, I could've written for him. I think that’s enough said.
‘the Help’ is written and directed by Tate Taylor, based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett. It is set in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement; around the time Rock-n-Roll happened. There’s a scene where Skeeter examines the legality of the task she’s set out to do – of bringing to the forefront, for the first time, the perspectives of Black housemaids about their position and their real emotions on the White American households as they see it. She reads out existing laws in a voiceover. It’s terrible. The maids are sensible enough to have a life of their own. In fact, they already do. They’re self-sustained. It’s sad how they had reclined to their fates to ensure future security; heroic, yet sad. Even more heroic is how the entire African-American country managed to break those walls down, or at least reduce them to hedges and fences that they can jump over and get along, having a heavy hand in contributing to what’s called ‘pop culture’ today. Jazz music. Blues music. Beyonce Knowles.
But that victory would be another movie. ‘the Help’, as I see it, is self-empowerment. It’s not about the triumph as such. It’s about contentment; the helplessness to aspire for anything else. There’s a little too much about inevitability these days, isn’t there? “God says you should love your enemies,” Aibileen says. “It’s hard to do.” It’s a well-performed movie that goes a little easy on the melodrama. It’s moving.
Dreamworks (along with Reliance Big Entertainment) produces ‘the Help.’ It needs to be mentioned that Spielberg made ‘the Color Purple’ in 1985. I’m wouldn’t know if there are comparisons, I haven’t watched ‘the Color Purple.’ I know Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for Best Actress though. Ms. Davis has been nominated this year. So has Ms. Spencer and Ms. Chastain, with the film itself up for ‘Best Picture.’ It would win something. I’d go for Ms. Chastain as right girl for the wrong movie. As for ‘Best Actress’, it’s Elizabeth Olsen in my heart. And let me not be called a racist for that.