Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“The Help”

Emma Stone as Eugenia Skeeter in "The Help"
The movie “The Help” released in August 2011 and Oscar winner of this year’s Academy Awards touches on the subject of segregation and racism. It presents the experiences of black American women who were maids working for white people back in 1963 in the South during the civil rights movement. The movie is spiced up with emotion and it certainly has a way of capturing the viewers’ interest; however, “The Help” producer seems to be quite careful not to overdo the emotional aspect as it could deflect the purpose of the movie.

The plot presents something fresh and not just mere repetition from history books. Even though it has its credits for being such an outstanding piece of work, it also entices the imagination. I cannot help wondering that perhaps this movie is not just a product that came out of Hollywood by chance but, may be the result of a well thought out work made to meet a certain agenda in an election year.

The screen play “The Help”, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller novel and directed by Tate Taylor, was produced by DreamWorks and released in August 2011 to become one of the year’s biggest office box hits. It became even more exposed after the four Academy Awards nominations which ended up rendering a “best supporting actress Oscar” to Octavia Spencer for her outstanding participation in “The Help” during the 84th Annual Academy Awards just this past February. So far, “The Help” net returns have surpassed its original spending budget by about tenfold and obviously will still get royalties for years to come.

There were many contributing factors for the success of the movie. Firstly, thanks to the exceptional work of screen producer and director Tate Taylor. He meticulously manicured the script and scenes of the film in a way to deliver his message in the right tone to the viewing public. Also, the exceptional acting of very talented cast of members such as, Emma Stone (Skeeter), Viola Davis (Aibileen), and Octavia Spencer (Minny), have to be recognized.

The movie has had great reviews from industry critics and its recognition by the Awards Academy was basically a confirmation of what many people already knew. I personally enjoyed watching it and it was definitely worth the time. Undoubtedly, its success rate is not just attributed to great directing and a superb cast but also to the fact that it was constructed around a theme which has stood the test of time and is known to evoke people’s emotions.

One negative aspect is that it brings back memories of all the ugliness of segregation which happened in the early sixties in the Southern United States. Throughout the duration of the movie there are many close encounters with elements of behavior which constitute racist acts but interestingly, such elements are presented in a very discrete manner as the public does not necessarily need to see shocking scenes of racism in order to get a clear picture of what is going on in the background.

The public get a taste and is reminded of what it was like to live in segregation in that particular time in history. Some of the action is only implied to be happening, parallel to the story, and is not told with details. It seems that the author intentionally left out facts that do not need to be retold and rely on people’s historical knowledge and imagination to read between the lines and realize what is going on behind the scenes.

Despite the negative aspects presented in the movie, “The Help” is also uplifting. It introduces the elements of faith, hope and courage in the midst of chaos. Metaphorically speaking, once hope and faith are in the works they act like a spark which produces a fire. It only takes a little spark and the right wind conditions for a fire to spread and wipe out an entire village or a whole forest. Likewise, the main characters become empowered with the belief of the possibility of change, little by little, after they are impregnated with the idea that their testimonials.

The proposed book Skeeter intends to write could potentially contribute to the existing laws changing in favor of those which would reinforce civil rights to all. Despite the apprehensive mood in the face of the dangerous situation they were up against, Skeeter and the maids courageously met in secret to gather testimonials which would be used to compile the book. Skitter’s initiative in this case is the spark favored by the winds of the civil rights movement which was at the time picking up momentum and blowing all over the country.

The story develops in Jackson Mississippi back in 1963 during a time of Jim Crow Laws, which determined segregation of the black people population. The Civil Rights Movement was in the works and exerted some pressure to force congress to override such laws and break the cycle of vicious acts of racism and mistreatment that African Americans were suffering during that period in time. It highlights the routine of black maids who arrived by bus everyday to work in homes of white folks to perform domestic tasks such as, cooking, cleaning and organizing but mainly to raise their children.

Aibileen, the character played by actress Viola Davis, dedicates her entire life raising the children of white families while her own child perishes unattended. Interestingly, such children raised by many maids such as hers developed a relationship of love with their nannies as they were there for them more intensely than the parents were. Their actual parents were usually absent and engaged in their social roles. Some of those very same children would grow older and get into the same “politically correct” cycle of their parents and keep their distance and separation from black people.

Obviously that was not the case with Ms. Skitter who had a remarkable relationship with her nanny and apparently developed a very close relationship of love not comparable to the way she felt about her mother. That also does not apply to Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), Minny’s employer, who seems to be color blind and completely disregarded the status difference between them and treats Minny like an equal individual. She does not realize that her closeness with the maid could potentially cause her trouble.

Even though there was little exception to the rules in terms of personal relation dynamics, society as a whole was pretty much racist, especially in the south of the country, despite the fact that slavery was abolished about a hundred years prior. Society, predominantly formed by whites, was still in the course of exercising the culture of racism under the veil of segregation laws in the early sixties.

People of color were still abused and literally had no rights. Not every individual who was black and worked for white people was necessarily mistreated on a daily basis. The movie which is shown from the perspective of the whites, does not go into detail with the intimate lives of the maids and only focuses on their day to day work relationship dynamics with the white people.

The movie “The Help” tells a story of a white young lady named Eugenia Skeeter (Emma Stone) from Jackson, Mississippi, who had a more altruistic perspective in life than other girls her age who would normally anticipate getting married, having children, and settling down after college graduation. She became a journalist and was inspired by the civil rights movement.

She went back to her hometown Jackson with an ambitious project in mind of writing a book about racism based on the maid’s experience of working at white family’s homes. She started out interviewing her acquaintances, Aibileen and Minny, but initially she faced a lot of resistance from them due to the sensitivity of the matter.

But as soon as they felt comfortable with Skitter, things started moving along. Eventually other women joined in to tell their stories. Skeeter finally concluded her work and the book was considered an ice-breaker in the sense that it raised awareness of how society was conducting itself concerning racism because for the first time the whites were presenting the other side of the story.

The movie’s plot focuses on the relation dynamics of maids who worked for white people and it presents the negatives of segregation and racism. It also puts an emphasis on the contrast between the affection and caring the whites receive from black nannies while they are toddlers.
They are eventually molded to fulfill the politically correct ways of their parents and society and they grow up in denial as they would have difficulty in accepting the fact that those very women who took care of them when they were young had an important participation in their formation as individuals.

“The Help” is the result of a very meticulous work and it highlights the difficulty blacks faced in becoming accepted as a member of society at a time when racism and segregation was at its peak in the history of this country. It also brings about the message of change, which is never an easy transition for one to go through, as they have to step in the turbulent path of adaptation and new circumstances of a foreign terrain. Despite the negatives, the movie is empowering as it focuses on elements such as, resilience, pride, love courage and hope with much intensity.

Apart from the Hollywood spotlight I am aware that the pattern of thinking and behavior among members of a society is largely influenced by external forces. In an industrialized society like ours, mass media plays a big role in shaping people’s perceptions, behavior and preferences. We are bombarded with information every single day and in every possible way in a very incisive manner.

Considering that our thoughts and perceptions are largely influenced by such external factors, the movie “The Help” could very well be used as an example as to how peoples’ focus may be guided in an intended direction. It is nothing new that political parties use the unique ability celebrities have to connect with people in order to bridge their political interests with a large audience of fans who also happen to be voters. Even if the chances may appear relatively low, the emotions around the racial issue brought to light in “The Help” may very well be a factor that could influence a voter’s decision at the time he casts his vote.

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