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Ronita Torcato

A little chit, a little chat, a little bit of this & that;meaning news, views & lotsa reviews from an independent journo based in Bombay aka Mumbai


THE HELP : movie review

The Help

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard,  Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer,Allison Janney 

Writer-director Tate Taylor 

This movie could have been titled The Maids but then people might have confused it with Jean Genet's searing portrayal of interchangeable identities, illusion and  ritualistic role play in which two maids  take turns acting as "Madame," abusing each other as either employer or the help. The role play reveals not only the maids' hatred of the employer, but also self-loathing for being participants in an oppressive hierarchy.

Interestingly, the black maids in Tate Taylor's sensitive adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestselling book named The Help, only hate their white employers in Jackson,Mississippi circa the sixties.
Tate's film is a moving account of the race-riven badlands of  God's Own Country.If you only knew Jackson  from the song immortalised by Johnny Nash and June Carter and by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood and by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, performing as Cash and Carter, in Walk the Line) you'd be forgiven for thinking  it was a hip and happening hotspot for jaded couples desirous of rekindling love.
Heck no! It was a hellhole for black (aka African American) people.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is a maid employed by  Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O'Reilly),a not fit to be a mother kind of woman who has an adorable  two-year-old daughter, Mae Mobley ( and a lovely boy later). Like very many nannies, Aibileen is little  Mae's surrogate mom whose daily mantra to the child is: "You is kind. You is smart. You is important."

Like most of her peer group, Aibileen is deferential and devout.  It's gratifying ( for me at least)  to see how the maids clutch their  prayerbooks and hymnals ( with Jesus on the  front and back covers.) Jesus is their rock and their shelter and their salvation,hallelujah! And I don't care if I'm being politically incorrect but they never backslide unlike some other Very Important  Persons I can think of. (Cassius Clay, Cat Stevens, Malcolm X etc etc Hey, didn't they know the Arabs engaged in the slave trade?)

Aibileen's friend Minny   (Octavia Spencer) is different: she  is opinionated and feisty, but gets thrashed (offscreen) by her abusive husband.  Minny works for Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard)  who is blind to the paradox of  organising charity dinners for African children and championing  the local campaign for separate bathrooms outside white homes for  black people. Maybe,she's not blind. It could well be that she is, as Aibileen tells her in a defining moment, " a godless woman."

 Callous racism didn't originate with the likes of  Hilly. Maimonides, a preeminent medieval Jewish thinker, philosopher and physician drew on  the Biblical story of Noah ( Genesis 9:21-27 ) to justify subjugation  of black people. Let me quote Maimonides (aka Rambam) "The Negroes found in the remote South, and those who resemble them from among them that are with us in these climes. The status of those is like that of irrational animals. To my mind they do not have the rank of men, but have among the beings a rank lower than the rank of man but higher than the rank of apes. For they have the external shape and lineaments of a man and a faculty of discernment that is superior to that of the apes."

Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses etc etc also quoted the Old Testament to oppress blacks. White "Christian" settlers would  exterminate native American Indians, the Cherokees themselves would enslave Africans... Even "enlightened" souls  like Thomas Jefferson, principal  drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States   relied on non-Biblical justifications from history, anthropology, phrenology, and even chemistry to justify their belief in Black inferiority! To think South African's apartheid policy could oppress and control blacks for almost hald a century! Sadly, racism remains alive kicking in many parts of the world, including the US and dare I say it, India, my India?

Though a fictional creature, Hilly could well be one of many  in the sixties who believed that black people had different diseases that white people could catch from toilet seats. This is intriguing, considering that their children were raised (even suckled) by black nannies. I wouldn't be surprised if the Hilly types also thought black people have ink running through their veins!

 But all five fingers are not the same. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan  (Emma Stone) is different from her set, which is trying to find her a husband - she's considered an old man when she's only 23. The "best" they can do is  an admittedly handsome roughneck with crude manners and no  taste. See, handsome is and handsome does. Unlike the other Southern belles, Skeeter earned a  college degree while the rest married young and had babies. And she wants to write and make a difference which saddens her ill mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) who wants to see her "settled."

Like small Mae,  Skeeter was also neglected by her own mother and nurtured instead by her family's black housemaid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson),for whom Skeeter retains great  affection.  In flashbacks, she remembers her Constantine  who told her, “Ugly is something that grows up inside you.”

Skeeter applies for  a position at the local paper, and is offered a housecleaning advice column.  Recalling sage advice from a NYC  publisher to “Write about something that affects you,” So Skeeter decides to write a book about the lives of domestic helpers in Jackson.
She has to write in secret about the maids, who bring up white people's children, but not their own. In secret, because, this is a potentially dangerous matter which could endanger the lives of the domestics. Unsurprisingly reluctant at first to be interviewed,  Aibileen later agrees and is joined by Minnie and the others in sharing their experiences, candid confessions, honest opinions and  perspectives in occasional voiceovers, mostly from Aibileen)
The Help blends these personal and coming of age strands with the civil rights struggle using documentary footage of JFK's murder and Martin Luther King's clarion call for civil rights. We know Aibileen has a tragic past - she lives alone, staring with love and longing at a sepia portrait of a son in college robes with whom she  never communicates and whom we never see. We  never see the horrific racism that must have ended their lives or sent them to prison: absent too is  the diabolical Klu Klux Klan. We only see the tense aftermath of the shooting of a black. But we do see how segregation works quietly,insidiously. Like Satan in the Garden of Eden.
Skeeter's conversation with Aibileen on the sidewalk is frowned upon by white passers-by. The blacks live in a remote,run down part of town, in run down shacks. Slowly and steadily, trust develops between Aibileen and Skeeter, resulting in a beautiful revelation:  truth possesses the power to heal and to unite, to plant seeds of change, to instil  hope and, ultimately, as in Aibileen's case, to set us free. When she walks down that long dusty, tree-flanked road, I could only think of Tagore's wonderful poem which was banned by the late Indira Gandhi ( or her Minister of Info & Broadcasting) during the Emergency : Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/Into that heaven of freedom,my Father/Let my country awake!

What a wonderful,inspirational film this! The cast excels in principal and supporting roles. Viola Davis gets under our skin as the stoic Aibileen; Octavia Spencer is sassy and hurting under the bravado, Sissy Spacek is delightful in a small role as Hilly's Alzheimer-afflicted mother. Blonde and beautiful Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life) is riveting as the  sweet "white trash” girl who is marginalised for marrying Hilly’s rich ex boyfriend Johnny (Mike Vogel).
    An off-colour plot development ( Minnie's "sweet" revenge  on Hilly) may unnerve some viewers enough to refrain from ever eating out again.Urrgh.



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About Ronita Torcato

Torcato Agnela Ronita
An incomplete round-up of movie news, features & views from an independent journo & (dare I say it:-) film critic in Mumbai



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