(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem based on overheard speech, such as the hearsay that servers are likely to notice.)
“The pie’s not sweet enough today.”
“It’s all her fault, you know.”
“They can’t expect us all to stay
With riffraff like them, though.”
I overhear the gossipers,
Who prattle and complain,
That such-and-such was never hers
Or blank was such a pain.
They talk as if I am not here,
Invisibly at hand,
A ghost to serve and disappear
But not to understand.
I’m not to chafe or take offense,
When they discuss my worth
Or tease and joke at my expense
To all the listening earth.
But I’ve a mouth, as well as ears,
I will not undersell.
A ghost who disappears but hears
Has many tales to tell.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Films like The Help are the highest form of chick flick. All the important characters are women, but instead of focusing on romantic exploits (though there’s a little of that), this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s hit novel raises its sights higher to matters of race, prejudice, and personal courage, all with an entertainingly light touch.
It starts out in rather uncomfortable territory, as the women of Jackson, Mississippi, gossip and gab as Southern 1960s housewives apparently did, while treating their hired black maids as second-class citizens. Social bigwig Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) extols the merits of “separate but equal” in full view of the women’s maids, including Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), even going so far as to start an initiative for separate home bathrooms for the help. It’s a prime portrait of racist whites at their most passive-aggressive and a frustrating one at that for two different reasons: (1) the irritation that such treatment was once commonplace and (2) the fact that this is how all white southerners of that era will be remembered, which wasn’t necessarily true for all. (My grandmother, for instance, surely had some prejudice natural to the time and place, but it never extended to treating black people with such condescension.) Only Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” Phelan has any compunction about the rampant contempt on display and has the inclination to do something about it, namely writing a book from the perspective of “the help.”
It’s in the second half that all the characters and their relationships come full circle, from Hilly getting some mortifying retribution to Skeeter earning the trust and cooperation of the maids, who overcome their justified fears to provide their untold two cents. The book becomes not only a potential meal ticket for Skeeter’s aspirations but a pressure valve for her interviewees, who for the first time are able to talk about their memories and grievances openly. While people like Hilly give the maid-ma’am relationship a bad name, the film often presents the positive connections between the help and the helped with a sweet intimacy: Skeeter found confidence and encouragement in her mother’s housemaid (Cicely Tyson); Minny offers cooking instruction and an open heart and ear to a supposedly trashy outcast in need of help (Jessica Chastain); and Aibileen’s bond with her mistress’s toddler is a stronger mother/daughter attachment than the child’s real one.
The Help features a surprising balance between comedy and drama, sometimes laden with tearjerking emotion, other times giving the audience every reason to whoop with scandalous satisfaction. It swings freely from reminders of the tumultuous racial situation of the time to inspiring maxims and chuckle-worthy pranks. What grounds this wide range of material is the universally superb cast. Every performance excels, with Octavia Spencer’s tenacity and surplus of attitude earning her a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for which Jessica Chastain was also nominated. Though Viola Davis didn’t win her Best Actress nomination, she’s easily the best actress here and brings the same master-class acting that proves her win for Fences was long overdue. While the black actresses steal the show, Alison Janney is another standout as Skeeter’s overbearing but conflicted mother, and as the one unbiased white character, Emma Stone continues to make me an ever bigger fan of hers.
Now that I’ve seen The Help, I absolutely consider it among the best films of 2011 and deserving of its Best Picture nomination, but it doesn’t quite cross that little line in my head to qualify as one of my favorites overall. I don’t think it’s the woman-centric narrative or white guilt or anything like that; it’s simply a film I respect and enjoyed but only to a point. The depiction of the racism of Southern communities is perhaps too easy a stereotype, reflecting modern sensibilities toward villainous, backward-thinking whites of the period, even if it has some basis in truth. Aside from this, though, The Help is an expertly acted testimonial for untold stories and the courage to tell them.
Best line: (Skeeter’s maid Constantine) “Every day you’re not dead in the ground, when you wake up in the morning, you’re gonna have to make some decisions. Got to ask yourself this question: ‘Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?’ You hear me? … All right? As for your mama, she didn’t pick her life. It picked her. But you, you’re gonna do something big with yours. You wait and see.”
VC’s best line: (Skeeter’s mom Charlotte) “Courage sometimes skips a generation. Thank you for bringing it back to our family.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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