Friday, September 9, 2011

The Help: Of Chocolate Pies

Loosely based on the Clifton Webb and Maureen O’Hara hit Sitting Pretty of 1948, The Help gives those on the bottom and on the outside a chance to critique those on top and on the inside; obviously, in a situation such as this, boundaries and social conventions are the real subjects and the characters mere vehicles to see our own selves in action, in our worst moments. Films such as this don’t work when we push it to that safe arm’s distance and see “everyone else” and not ourselves; we all do something, regardless of class, race, religion, profession and where we live.
"Oscar Contender" is written all over this film
Before we get into the rest of the film, let me offer Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney) as a “microcosm” of the rest of the film: she has cancer, like the various social diseases throughout the film (and we can compare Charlotte to Jackson society because Jackson gave birth to Skeeter’s understanding of social norms and abnormalities just as her biological mother did). Due to the cancer, Charlotte has lost a significant portion of her hair and wears wigs, not all of which look great on her, rather like society trying to put a wig on our own “revealing” (balding) behavior we don’t want others to see.
Charlotte's dress (symbolically) doesn't fit Skeeter. The green of this dress (juxtaposed to Hilly's green dress later) is the color of hope for Skeeter, but Skeeter has different hopes of her own from her mother's hopes for her.
By the end of the film, Charlotte has ditched the wigs in favor of a turban style "wrap" with a gemstone on it and announces to Skeeter that she is going to fight the cancer and she is determined to get well. The determination to heal signals that Jackson, too, will heal and overcome the cancer eating away at it, and Charlotte’s gem-adorned turban symbolizes that she has gained a new, greater wisdom from her own mistakes that she’s not going to repeat nor allow to continue.
Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson and Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark.
“The help,” appears, on the surface, to refer to the “hired help,” i.e., the black maids; but the beauty of the film is that it goes deeper than that. An old black maid named Constantine Jefferson (and, yes, you should be thinking of President Thomas Jefferson and his life-long affair with his black maid Sally Hemings) has raised Skeeter since she was a baby; when Skeeter goes through those awkward years, Constantine gives her a powerful pep talk, full of love, because Constantine herself has had the same struggles Skeeter now endures, although Constantine’s comes from race discrimination, Skeeter’s discrimination comes from not being pretty (enough).
Constantine and little Skeeter.
Abigail and Minny are being forced into ever greater indignities and Skeeter is “the help” they need to get attention to their plight. The Ladies Auxiliary Club is “the help” the black children need to ensure they have enough food during the winter months, but the Ladies Auxiliary Club is also enlisting “the help” of the governor to establish a state law that households with black servants must have separate bathrooms for them. Skeeter’s mom Charlotte receives “the help” from her women’s club in firing Constantine for (supposedly) overstepping boundaries during a (white) party. Cecilia Foote (Jessica Chastain) has Minny giver her “the help” she needs in understanding why she is so ostracized and Minny gets “the help” she needs from Cecilia when no one else will hire her because of “something she did.”
Bryce Dallas Howard as villainess Miss Hilly Holbrook.
Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) refuses to allow Minny, her black maid, to use her (a white woman’s) bathroom; Minny uses the bathroom anyway and Miss Hilly fires her for it. Returning with Miss Hilly’s favorite chocolate pie, Minny tells Miss Hilly (as she’s eating her second piece of the pie) to “Eat my shit.” Minny baked her own feces into the pie.
Minny about to get fired for using Miss Hilly's toilet.
Miss Hilly’s “fear” of disease being contracted from the sharing of bathrooms is its own disease (towards the end of the film, she gets a large, red… “bump” on her lip, symbolic of one, the disease she was afraid of getting from “shared” bathrooms and two, the problems she has spread like a disease throughout Jackson society because of her shallow perceptions). "Minny's" name is like "mini," too short, or not measuring up. Minny's retaliation at Miss Hilly reminds us what Christ said: it's not what we put in our mouths that makes us unclean, it's what comes out of our mouths that makes us unclean. Miss Hilly (whose own name suggests a "hill," an obstacle to the smooth relations in society) and her agenda of segregation--a form of hate--is the disease and makes her unclean, yet Minny feeding her "shit" is also an unclean act, to say the least, illustrating the compounding of problems.
Celia Foote is always putting her "foot" in her mouth.
Similarly, Skeeter’s boyfriend Stuart doesn’t giver her “the help” she needs in terms of encouragement when he doesn’t support her book (he's not a good "steward" of her talents); Jolene doesn’t offer “the help” Abi needs when Miss Hilly accuses her of stealing her silverware, etc.

While the racial boundaries between black and white are the obvious focus, The Help skillfully explores the other social boundaries which impair the well-being of all members of society: Skeeter’s single status and everyone fussing over her because she doesn’t have a boyfriend; Celia’s pregnancy out of wedlock and her ostracization from the rest of Jackson society, Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek in a brilliant, fun role) and her growing dementia, etc.
Social pecking order: the queen bee, the crazy old woman and the poor black maid.
The Help could have easily become a very one-dimensional film, but through it’s effortless navigating of all social boundaries (regardless of race) it manages to inspire us to carefully regard “the help” we are capable of giving to others, and “the help” we accept from others.

Giving and accepting the hand of friendship.