Friday, September 16, 2011

Class in the South

Movie Poster


I recently saw the film The Help, based on a book by Kathryn Stockett.1 The movie was directed by Tate Taylor and stars Viola Davis as Aibileen and Emma Stone as Eugenia and Octavia Jackson as Minny in the main roles.

The movie takes place in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960’s. At first the movie seems to be about the awakening of an upper-class, privileged White women to the inequities of the society to which she was born in. But that is the trap that the film maker sets for us. The film is not about her but about the women that she discovers are in fact her fellow human beings.

The plot starts with Eugenia returning to Jackson after graduating from an elite University in the North. She gets a part time journalism job at a local paper and discovers that her beloved Nanny, an elderly Black women named Constantine, has left and she suspects that something is being hidden from her.

Later Eugenia attends a get together organized by her friend Hilly. There she is made highly uncomfortable by the way her friends talk about Black people and their maids. The Maids are running about doing stuff and trying not to show any distress over what they hear. Eugenia’s friend Hilly talks about the need to build toilets especially for their Black maids so that they won’t use the ones they use. After all you can’t have Blacks and Whites using the same toilet. In fact the maids are forced to go outside.

Anyway Eugenia decides to find out what the help, i.e., the maids think about life, their jobs etc., and write a book about it. Since Aibileen is already helping her write the column for the local paper she enlists Aibileen’s help in doing the book. Aibileen is a women with a lot of bitterness within her, but with a great love of children, and anxious to tell her story.

Another character is Minny who is an extraordinary cook, but finds playing the game an ordeal. She is eventually blacklisted by Hilly. You have to see the movie to see how Minny gets back at her. It is very funny. Minny eventually is enlisted to help with the book. Slowly Eugenia acquires the stories she needs to help write the book. And slowly we see Aibileen awaken and reclaim the quiet dignity that she has within her. It becomes her story and a story of courage and yes hope. Meanwhile Eugenia finds out what happened to Constantine and about moral cowardice and the suffocating effects of caste.

A side story, but one that is unexpectedly moving is the story involving Minny and her new employer. Minny knows after what she has done she will never get another job in Jackson so she decides she might as well work for Celia. Now Celia is thoroughly ostracised women. Regarded as the lowest of “White trash”, she is a non person to Hilly and her friends. She is also crude, and spectacularly socially awkward. But she is also psychologically damaged and very human and very kind. Although she is condemned by Hilly and her friends for behaving, dressing etc., improperly, she never commits the vastly greater sin of treating people improperly, because unlike Hilly and her friends it would never occur to her to treat people badly merely because they are the help.

The contrast between the superficial proper behaviour of knowing what fork to use etc., and the vastly more important rules governing how to treat people are clearly drawn here.

As Aibileen gains in stature she learns that there are consequences. The book is published and Hilly is livid. Since she cannot get at Eugenia she tries to destroy Aibileen. But Aibileen with quiet dignity refuses to give into despair and looks towards a new day.

The acting in this film is first rate. Viola Davis, if there was any justice in the world, would be nominated for an Academy Award. Her performance of Aibileen is stunning. The portrayal of a deeply feeling woman who has had to put up with far too much in her life and is seething with anger and yes an enormous amount of love is extraordinary. All of Viola Davis’ performance is carefully understated and deeply moving.

Octavia Jackson who Minny plays is great fun. She is portrayed as a loud, clever and deeply proud women who when she has had enough. Watch out!

Jessica Chastain who plays Celia at first seems to be nothing more than a White trash caricature who married into money, but slowly we learn about her fundamental decency and her tragedy. It is both sad and touching.

Two small roles deserve a mention. Cicely Tyson who plays Constantine in a few brief flash back scenes manages to squeeze an enormous amount of pathos in those brief scenes. Sissy Spacek who plays Hilly’s mother is great fun as a cantankerous old women who basically views her daughter with well deserved contempt.

Emma Stone who Eugenia plays is good as a young women who finds out about the injustice that lurked all around while she was growing up. Her performance is convincing and actually more than adequate, but it does suffer in comparison with the other performers.

Bryce Dallas Howard who plays Hilly is very good unfortunately it appears that the director wanted a cartoon of the uptight, hateful upper class bitch and although it is fun to hate her this character is too one dimensional. A little more depth would probably not have made her any less horrible but she would have been less of a cardboard cut-out.

The direction and filming were simple and clear. Rather than spice it up with tricks the director decided to tell a story simply but effectively.

Finally historical validity. It is highly unpleasant to remember that this story describes a social situation that existed only 50 years ago; within my lifetime. A situation in which an entire group of people were not just separated by class from others but were a separate caste. Literally considered in some way polluting to the upper caste and segregated away as much as possible. Even though they had these lower caste people raise their children they still wanted to minimize contact. In the movie they went to strenuous means to avoid even touching or being touched by their maids because such touch was apparently defiling. It was both insane and profoundly hateful.2

The all pervasive fear that led, not these women, to stifle their anger and hurt least it destroy their ability to support themselves was also a bitter part of life in that time period along with the thoughtless cruelty of their employers, who almost never say please or thank you. It is rather unsettling to realize just how recent this was.

All in all I strongly recommend this film.

2. Stockett, Kathryn, The Help, Penguin books, New York, 2009.

1. See Woodward, C. Vann, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, (Original Pub. 1955).

Pierre Cloutier

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