Thursday, October 27, 2011

Not Just Anybody's Help

If racism is a male invention, then one of the strengths of The Help lies in showing how that construct suits certain sections of the so-called opposite sex too.

White madams like Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly might allow maids like Octavia Spencer’s Minny to effectively rear their precious white babies, but the latter still have to use “separate but equal” toilets. In fact, the former has one specially built for her maid, typically expecting gratitude into the bargain.

Their performances, too, are nothing short of spot-on. This goes for 99% of the cast.

As a South African, of course, this is strikingly familiar. All the shades are there in this film which doesn’t feel long, though it is well over two hours; or for women only, though it mainly concerns women and most of the men are either ineffectual or insignificant.

The vastly under-utilised Sissy Spacek gives a wonderfully comic performance to lighten things up occasionally, while Viola Davis gives a seering performance as Abilene who, like most African domestic workers, can’t help loving the spoilt white brats she helps through their most important years. That her son was killed in a racist attack when he was 24 haunts every pore of her performance.

Some may say that this is American history and there are other issues that need addressing, but it’s a problem that is as alive today in South Africa as it is for, say, Philippinas in Saudi Arabia.

My only reservation is with the very watchable Emma Stone’s Skeeter and her back story, in which her mother (Charlotte Phelan) fired a loyal maid (Cicely Tyson) who had effectively been Skeeter's real mother. Skeeter's mother had done so to save face in front of some women’s association friends, and she did it in front of the old maid’s daughter.

When Skeeter finally confronts her mother about this painful incident and wants to make amends to the woman, she discovers that old Constantine Jefferson has died in the very meantime. It’s all very contrite and made up among the white mother and daughter, but no repairs are made to the maid’s daughter, who witnessed that humiliation. A single sentence would have repaired that damage.

Lastly, if Stone took to her role of schoolyard "hussy" in Easy A like a fish to water, then she seems a little out of her depth here. She looks a little too Seventies Romance Illustrated with her shaggy red curls as opposed to a Sixties young woman who is slowly becoming aware of - and doing something about - a social injustice.

She does all the right things by starting to record these women’s painful experiences and sharing her royalties with them, but she seems emotionally quite removed from the whole business. She seems much clearer about what she thinks of Southern men than just how committed she is to the women she has anonymously immortalised.

Even at the end she doesn’t seem terribly convinced that she will stay with them and is easily persuaded to not do so. She is given an oblique camera angle and she doesn’t even hug these women who have, at great risk, bared their souls to her.

If the film was trying to make a point about certain kinds of ambitious writers or liberals, whose concern is directly proportional to their distance from the problem, then it would have been fine. But one would have somehow expected more warmth here, more fire.


New Zealand has won the Rugby World Cup for a second time, at home, and everyone’s in a bit of a daze. People and the media seem reluctant to let it go, the former by still flying their tired flags on their cars and porches, the latter by squeezing every bit of mileage out of it that they can.

It’s all deserved, of course, what with most visitors having had a wonderful time. But the curious thing about the media is that every time they so desperately zoomed in on a potential hero, the poor bugger got injured.

First it was Dan Carter (aka Jesus), then his replacement, Colin Slade, then his replacement, cancer survivor Aaron Cruden, until last choice Stephen Donald had to come on in the final and – much to his surprise - kick the winning penalty.

Thank God (aka Richie McCaw) the captain's foot and gouged eye held out. Had he and the boys failed, who knows how many Pacific women would have had bruised eyes too?


Also on our screens at the moment are two addictive series. Season two of Downton Abbey has arrived with Dame Maggie Smith saying everything everybody else thinks, as has The Borgias, starring a magnificently depraved Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander, the head of “the original crime family”.

The tagline says it all: Sex. Power. Murder. Amen. And it feels so much more authentic than The Tudors, dripping as it does with the blood and ideas of 15th century Italy, which gave birth to the likes of the fiery Savonarola (Steven Berkoff) and astute Niccolo Machiavelli (Julian Bleach).

But then it’s written and executive produced by that master Irish-Catholic storyteller, Neil Jordan, and you can't get much better than that, can you?

Neil Sonnekus

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