Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Help: Worth Seeing By All

This past Sunday we went to see The Help. I'd been hearing great reviews and saw a lot of promotion for it when I was in Dallas last week. I did not know how powerful the film would be and how it would intersect with several other stories I had watched or read lately, including a documentary on the Freedom Riders that I saw two weeks ago.

Forget any talk about Oscars. A movie like this is not about performances, it's about conveying a message, though the performances are strong. Like "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," we are given snapshots of a lifestyle most of us up North have been utterly oblivious to, the strange world of Jim Crow laws and "separate but equal."

Jim Burns' outstanding documentaries on Jazz and on Baseball return to this theme repeatedly. What were the Negro Leagues all about anyways? You're the most talented pitcher in the world and you can't play pro ball because you're black?

But in the deep south it went much further, and The Help gives yet another perspective on the manner in which this cancer infected the hearts and lives of so many.

This film is about a gutsy girl who decides to tell the truth about what it feels like to be poor and black while having to take care of the children and meals and chores of rich white folk. The treatment and tone of the film keep it from being maudlin. It's an enjoyable film even while being deadly serious, and for this reason it should reach a wider audience.

The Help is the story of a young writer named Skeeter (Emma Stone) who returns to her hometown of Jackson, MS, after being away at college. She's been told that if she wants to be a writer in New York, she needs more experience first. In the process of gaining that experience as the writer of an Ann Landers-type column, she realizes that there's an untold story in Mississippi that she must tell. When black servants Abilene (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer) begin to open up, Skeeter knows the first hurdle has been crossed and her hopes are stoked. But the stakes were high, and two women's stories were not going to be sufficient. Her New York publisher wanted a dozen.

These were the days speaking up about racial equality meant putting your life on the line. It was not going to be easy for Skeeter to get these black servant women to speak up about their experiences. In essence, Skeeter's quest to do so becomes the driving force of the film against a backdrop of Freedom Riders, shootings (Medger Evers and JFK were both buried from bullets they caught at this time) and general abuse.

It's still hard for many of us to comprehend that this whole Southern way of life existed simultaneous to our own childhoods in the 50's and 60's. In Ohio and New Jersey we were so oblivious and care free. No black youth in Alabama could ever risk being so care free around whites. To even look at a white girl was to risk losing your life.

The Help, as a film, is a useful vehicle that tackles these issues in a manner you don't expect. Try to see it if you can.

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