Sunday, August 28, 2011

Working Help

The movie version of The Help, so to speak, works, which is both surprise and a relief. It's the best kind of Hollywood common reader movie, a.k.a. "middlebrow" entertainment designed to enlighten as well as, ultimately, uplift and delight. In the tradition's best movies -- say, The Best Years of Our Lives, To Kill a Mockingbird, there's enough complexity that we accept the movie as a truthful reflection of a problematic real world era.

We accept the flattening of historical complexities into good guys and bad guys in return for the superior performances of actors like Viola Davis, who holds the movie together as focused voice and biggest journey, the journey of self-respect that was the foundation of the Civil Rights Era and resonates in the ongoing struggle today.

While being fairly labelled as Civil Rights light, it's effective in bringing painful questions back, including what led up to the era.

Slavery, America's original sin, was about the complete denial of a human being's identity, the person as property, that identity to be bought and sold no matter how many times it breaks up a slave family. The uneasy truce that followed the Civil War for 100 years was essentially a recodification of the old system, with personhood still denied by an epithet, by the devilish nerve to kidnap young men and women in the night and hang them from trees.

The biggest historical news moment in The Help is the shooting of African-American rights activist, Medger Evers, happening in the very town of Jackson where the movie's set. Considering the tripling of death threats against the President when Obama took office, there's something palpable about the film for our time, a safe place to think about a time when America was not as fair, in law or custom, as it is now. As the film has a comedic heart, its irony is more ultimately more positive than negative, but it's an emotional experience throughout, in large part due to the exemplary cast of women.

Viola Davis' Abiline is given the main voice, not Emma Stone's Skeeter although the trailer would have you fooled into thinking it's all through the white chick's eyes. Davis, 41, has won two Tony's and was nominated for an Oscar for Doubt, so I think the only question is whether she gets nominated in the Best Actress category or the more likely chance of dominating as Supporting Actress. There's an argument to be made that it's an ensemble piece, but you can't submit Stone as Best Actress without betraying the story. I haven't read the book, but saw that it uses three voices -- Abiline, Skeeter and Minny -- which the filmmakers wisely consolidated into Abiline.

Davis is the lead, with Stone close behind and the terrific Octavia Spencer as the rebel, Minny. I loved seeing Jessica Chastain playing the opposite of her idealized mother figure in The Tree of Life, Allison Janney is great as Skeeter's mom, Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson are welcome anchors at the senior end, and Stone does come out of this a leading lady who can act, is naturally attractive in an interestingly non-bombshell way, and may just be the current smart it girl of her young generation.

I don't want to post the trailer because it's both misleading and spoiler-filled. Just trust me that you don't have to feel guilty going to see it. Even white Liberal guilt.

Someday, it'll probably be a musical.

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