Monday, March 5, 2012

The Help -- friendships and truth

Director: Tate Taylor, 2011. (PG-13)

What was the last film you saw that had no main male role? It’s hard to remember, right, since most films have a male lead. The Help, though, is a female dominated film. Actually, there is nary a main part for a man in this movie. Instead, there is a wealth of fine acting on display from women, white and black. There is a man at the helm, Tate Taylor, who himself adapted the screenplay from the popular 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett. And he has created a moving and surprisingly engaging film of friendship across social boundaries that shows the power of the truth to set free.

Set in Mississippi in the early 1960s, the story focuses on Skeeter (Emma Stone, Crazy, Stupid Love), a southern girl returning from college set on becoming a writer. Unlike her genteel friends, like Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), she has no interest in getting married and having kids. No, she wants a career as a journalist in the Big Apple and is set on earning her way there through the small town newspaper route.

When she is offered a job as the housekeeping advice columnist she snaps it up, but then realizes she knows nothing about this. She has little to offer. She needs help. She turns to “the help”, asking Elizabeth’s black maid Aibileen (Viola Davis, Doubt) for advice.

The acting here is consistently strong. Stone is having a break-out year, and plays Skeeter with just enough naivete and nerve. Davis commands the screen as Aibileen, so much so that you can almost feel the weight of her pain. While Octavia Spencer is not quite a caricature as a bug-eyed maid. WIth minor roles for Allison Janney, Mary Steenburgen and Sissy Spacek, this is almost a whos-who of American actresses.

Although Skeeter, like everyone else in this middle-class southern town, has a black maid to do the housework, there is a clear racial line precluding real friendship. The maids may raise the kids as friends, even teaching them self-affirming lessons (“you is kind. You is smart. You is important.”) that their actual parents fail to impart, yet when these kids turn into adults, the relationship turns nasty. Now they are servants to be managed and commanded.

As Skeeter begins her writing, she realizes that these maids are being denied civil rights. She begins to see the effects of separation, where they cannot even use the same toilets as the white people. (Indeed, her friend Hilly starts a political motion to mandate the construction of a blacks-only toilet in each white home.) She realizes that these maids have a story to tell, and she can help them by writing it. That is the thrust of the story.

When she first comes into Aibileen’s home, Aibileen is visibly nervous. It is clear why: “I ain’t never had no white person in my house before.” And there is real danger in this, physical as well as social. What starts out as a simple interview, stiff and stilted, turns into a flowering friendship as Skeeter shows a genuine interest in Aibileen’s story and the personal tragedy that drives this quiet and withdrawn women. But she needs more stories than just this one, and over time Minny (Octavia Spencer), Hilly’s maid, is drawn in.

Minny is the opposite of Aibleen, but a deep friend. Where Aibileen is quiet and withdrawn, Minny is loud and sassy mouthed, always finding herself in trouble. These three form an unlikely friendship through this project.

Friendship is one of the themes of the film. Skeeter has her own friends in her own social circle, but they have the wrong values. They do not align with Skeeter’s. Hilly and Elizabeth would draw towards a lifestyle she does not want. Instead, she finds a closer kinship with these two black women. This echoes the thoughts of Proverbs 12:26: “The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” We should beware the wrong friends, lest they lead us down the wrong paths.

Then there is Celia (Jessica Chastain, The Debt). A white southern girl, she is cast as a pariah by Hilly for personal reasons, so she has to live miles from town without a maid to help her. Since Hilly is leader of the local women’s league, all of the other women kowtow to her and submitting to peer pressure avoid Celia. She has no friendships, until Minny, jobless after Hilly fires her, becomes her maid. Two outcasts find friendship and renewed life together. This is a reminder that social boundaries also block white friendships just as much as inter-racial relationships.

The theme of faith appears in the contrast of two main female characters, Aibileen and Hilly, the two outwardly Christian women in the movie. Hilly is a strong white Christian, but she uses her “faith” to divide and conquer, to support the status quo. There is no grace or mercy in her Christian make-up. Indeed, she is more characteristic of the Pharisees that Jesus condemns so scornfully. When he says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” he could be talking to Hilly (Matt. 23:27). Aibileen, on the other hand, is a woman who has a slow faith, one that was damaged by an early tragedy. She still attends church (an all-black church of course), but has some hesitation with regards to God. But when a powerful sermon touches, God has spoken. He has broken through her defenses and commanded her to meet with Skeeter regardless of the personal dangers. Aibileen’s quiet faith listens to the Holy Spirit and she obeys the voice of God. Unlike Hilly, she has experienced grace and mercy. She has a legitimate faith. She is an example of one God refers to in Isaiah 66:2: “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.”

A final theme revolves around truth. The white women are living a lie. The maids are telling their stories, stories swimming in truth. As tragedy unfolds in the town among the black community, Aibileen’s front room fills with maids ready and anxious to pour out truth. And they find that the truth unites. It unites them in a radical revolution against the social status quo. The truth also brings healing to Aibileen and to the others, as it allows them to confess earlier tragedies or sins, secrets never shared, that once released shower oil onto open wounds.

More than this, though, this truth ultimately sets Aibileen free from society-imposed and self-imposed prison. As she walks away from Elizabeth’s home at the end, she recounts this new-found freedom. This is exactly what Jesus said: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). There is an eternal truth that is freeing, and that truth is found in the very person of Jesus. He said elsewhere, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). True freedom, indeed true life, is found in Jesus and in him alone.

The film is ultimately about the segregation between races and classes. These women who were trusted with white toddlers were not trusted with white toilets. Segregation was a hateful and shaming practice that divided and dehumanized. Skeeter’s project helped undermine it then, and eventually it was declared unlawful. But it makes us consider ourselves. We may not be practicing racists, like Hilly, but are we like her in some ways? What forms does discrimination and social segregation take today? What are our contemporary blind spots?

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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