May 24, 2013
Written by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
Thursday, 18 August 2011 10:57
Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help parents choose what to watch. This week’s pick is a new film adaptation of the best-selling novel, The Help.Revisiting the early 1960s is big business in entertainment today from Mad Men on television to How to Succeed... on Broadway. These shows celebrate a period that many of us remember, actually, as somewhat less than glamorous, unless you have a thing for black-and-white television sets, excessive fins on automobiles, or widespread cigarette smoking in public places.
As fun as these shows may be, they take a superficial look at what was, actually, a turbulent period in the United States. The early 1960s were years of bitter hatred between races as the nation approached the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Help, a meaningful new film based on the best-selling book, reaches beyond its beautifully recreated 1960s aesthetic to boldly examine issues that defined racial tension some 50 years ago. While the movie does not try to be a definitive examination of the oppressed in the Old South, it reveals the inexcusable behavior that the Civil Rights legislation intended to change. But Southern homes are filled with carpets for many reasons, one of which is to have a convenient place under which to sweep issues that are uncomfortable to address.
In The Help we meet Skeeter, a young white woman with intelligence and fairness that reach beyond her background. When she returns to her hometown of Jackson, Miss. (after failing her college assignment to land a husband), she stumbles on an idea for a book to, hopefully, impress an editor at a New York publishing house. Because she credits the care she received during her childhood from her family’s black maid — and resists repeating the pattern of treating black help as modern-day servants — she decides to tell the stories of how black maids serve white employers. What emerges, surprisingly to everyone, is a thoughtful, cathartic revelation for the subjects and the readers.
Such a framework gives writer/director Tate Taylor the foundation to ramble from character to character in a slightly episodic way, meandering from point to point, observation to observation. This casual approach to the story actually strengthens its impact because Taylor is clever enough to surprise at many turns. The white women, despite their perfection in looks, are as human as the young mothers of any generation; the black women, despite their complex lives, consistently bring a humanity and humor to every opportunity to touch their friends and employers.
The performances are exquisite. Viola Davis, so effective in Doubt on film and Fences on Broadway, should be a surefire Oscar nominee for her multi-layered portrayal of a black maid with strong conviction and a stronger heart. She is matched, scene for scene, by Octavia Spencer who brings a strong sense of humor to her work. Emma Stone is perfectly cast as the young writer and Allison Janey is touching as her complicated mother. Oscar winner Sissy Spacek — always welcome on film — walks away with every scene she appears in as a salty woman with an edge and a strong memory.
Sadly, the issues of the 1960s do not disappear as, today, we continue to experience unfair bias against people who dress and pray differently than many. The Help reminds us that people, not laws, determine fairness and opportunity. And when people are frightened, they look for any way, no matter how unfair, to protect themselves. This important film reminds us, again, that one person’s protection may be another’s prison.
* Content: High. This is a beautifully created and performed film about an important subject to anyone who values personal freedom.
* Entertainment: High. Despite the seriousness of the issues, the film is filled with colorful characters who radiate natural humor.
* Message: High. This nutritious film offers insight into the type of prejudice that, even 50 years later, still happens before our eyes.
* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to introduce children to such an essential issue of the human condition is welcome and should prompt thoughtful conversation.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film, talk with your children about the damage that hatred — and uninformed prejudice — can create and ask them where they think it still happens today.
(The Help is rated PG-13 and runs 146 minutes.)
4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets
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