Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Help

Oh My How Hypocritical

So one of my simplest reasons to watch this film is to see Emma Stone in a role that didn't require her hair to be dyed red, so that it's a glimpse into how she might look like in next year's summer blockbuster The Amazing Spider-man as Gwen Stacy, and coincidentally the last actress who took on that role in Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy, is Bryce Dallas Howard who's also in The Help as the antagonist whom everyone would love to hate for her highly hypocritical, bitchy and demeaning ways, being in a position of power and never letting anyone forget that, what more also as the instigator and immoral compass of the housewives in her community, organizing fund raisers for overseas but neglecting what's happening on the home front.

But frivolous reasons aside, The Help is one of the many films that's set in the 60s that deals with themes like prejudice and racism involving segregation amongst the Whites and the African Americans in Jackson, Mississippi, but having the very same themes also being relevant in society today even here in Singapore especially, with recent talk and focus on the issue of domestic help and our attitudes toward household maids that many employ for various reasons, who assist in looking after the children and the elderly, as well as to keep home while the rest of the adults are neck deep in economic pursuits. While racism is generally kept under control here, there are niggling incidents that pop up every now and then, so clearly we're not off the hook and there will always be individuals who choose intolerance.

Granted that racism back then was more pronounced especially during that era put on film, the story's based on an international bestseller written by Kathryn Stockett, and over here we're bound to identify with the issues highlighted especially in the horror stories you'd hear with regards to the treatment of domestic help, with abuse cases that make you sit up and wonder why we are capable of such inhumane acts. And the worst of all involves being hypocritical, putting on a false front for society, while clearly behaving like the devil when behind closed doors. The bottom line is, we're all humans and we share similar hopes and dreams whatever our skin colour, language and where we're from, in desiring a comfortable life filled with love, with a roof over our heads, food and community, friends and family we can turn to in times of need.

Which is why this film has themes and a poignant, thought provoking narrative that screams relevance, especially for those closeted intolerant few who must watch this, and reflect. Emma Stone stars as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, an aspiring journalist who has returned home only to find out that the group of peers she had grown up with, are leading a lifestyle of superficial leisure, saying a lot of things, but meaning nothing. And for all their cliquish behaviour in cruelly treating one of their own as a social outcast (Jessica Chastain from The Tree of Life), for an ulterior reason only Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) knows, what more their household maids who have to slog with the chores, be that surrogate mother to their kids, be at their beck and call, and being given attitude, stick, and threats of the sack?

Given the tension all round during the time, it's no wonder that Skeeter's plans to want to highlight The Help's predicament and provide them with a voice, no doubt also serving as a ticket for her journalistic ambitions to embark on a career in New York, all met with stone walled silence, until Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) decided that enough is enough, and begin opening up to Skeeter as research material, becoming her insights and perspective on how the African American help get treated in White households. And besides Aibileen's point of view, her friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) also chipped in, and both represent the broad spectrum of heartfelt accounts both good and bad, though largely negative, with the tacit understanding with Skeeter that they are not to be referred to directly.

It's one of those powerful films that takes the ugly side of humanity and presents it to us face on, to confront how cruel some of us can be, and what the strong amongst us must do to act and help those who are weak or bullied. Director Tate Taylor, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on the tales crafted around the households both Aibileen and Minny serve, from being treated like dirt to forming firm friendships with some of the people they know and serve, such as Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), as a reminder on how we should never judge a book by its cover, being obviously relevant when one gets handed one's fate for being of a certain skin colour. You may think that this may be a heavy film with all its seriousness, but trust me there is enough light hearted, even heart warming moments scattered throughout, though counter-balanced with moments of fear that will make you worry for the characters since mob mentality can lead to anything.

Emma Stone normally plays kooky characters of late, so this was perfect opportunity for her to shine in more serious drama which she does adequately. But she got upstaged by both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the former who brought a certain quiet dignity to her role which just calls for respect, and the latter being the comic relief as a really straight-talker, and whose story was probably the most touching in the film, with one of the funniest, running gag in the later half. Bryce Dallas Howard also owned her role as the antagonist Hilly in the film, and if you'd think she's only capable of goody two shoes roles, think again as she can convincingly play back-stabbers, with Sissy Spacek in a supporting role as Hilly's mom.

The Help reminds us of how one has to have Fear and Courage to addresses changes in community or the larger society we serve in, without which we would all be poorer for it. It may be almost 2 1/2 hours long, but it's every minute worth it just watching how an uphill battle was fought, and baby steps being taken each time to overcome obstacles placed in the characters' way. It's guaranteed that you'll laugh and you'll cry in the film thanks to its material, and it's firmly one of the contenders to be amongst my favourite films of this year. Highly recommended!

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