Year Released: 2011
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard
(PG-13, 146 min.)
Academy Awards (2012)
Actress in a Supporting Role: Octavia Spencer
"The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe." Joanna Macy
Behind the well-manicured lawns, the polished silver, and the delicate china is an invisible wall. And it’s one the maids in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, know not to cross. While the more violent street confrontations of the civil rights movement are played out on the street, the small private battles inside everyday kitchens are just as intense.
And maybe this inside look is more telling than all the bloody images of freedom marches, beatings, murders, and assassinations. It examines the quiet indignities that grind a spirit down, leaving invisible scars every bit as permanent as those left by violence. And the film’s close up is uncomfortable for us, too. Maybe that’s why it has to skirt around the painful truths with high doses of melodrama, caricature, and broad humor.
Maybe like a good stiff drink these devices open us up to new perspectives. Shakespeare, for example, often embedded his more radical ideas in comedies.
The comfortable world of Jackson, Mississippi, comfortable, that is, for the wealthy whites, is a bubble about to burst. It is heavy with long accepted paradoxes. Back in her hometown after four years at Ole Miss, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) sees her old world with new eyes. The bevy of black maids in the town have been trusted to rear legions of white babies, sharing a physical and emotional intimacy with their charges that often supersedes those of their parents. Yet, now it seems, they aren’t to share their bathrooms.
At least not according to the Junior League self-appointed diva, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is so inordinately proud of her Home Help Sanitation Initiative, “a bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help,” that she has even notified the Surgeon General of the state of Mississippi to see if he’ll endorse it.
Hilly chortles on about this repugnant idée fixe to her Junior League friends seemingly oblivious to the two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, who continue to serve the bridge party in humiliating silence as she details it. Hilly, whose only vestige of humanity is in her earnest attempts to find Skeeter a boyfriend, doesn’t see any problem with her little speech anymore than she notices any irony in her devotion to her Junior League charity of collecting canned goods for the poor starving children of Africa.
Hilly, of course, doesn’t limit her disregard to the Negro help. She is equally abusive to poor Celia Foote, (Jessica Chastain), that beautiful white trash package of naïve sexuality who has married Hilly's old beau. Celia, too, verges on caricature, a sweet but empty headed blond bimbo all but lost in her newly acquired rambling Southern mansion. Something about her desperation to be accepted by Junior League set, that and the natural sweetness that prompts Ceila to sit down in the kitchen to lunch with Minny, despite the maid’s exhortations that she should be eating her meal in the dining room, endears us to her.
Equally charming are two classic beauties who zip into their roles like second skins, leaving behind their well known acting identities like a whiff of perfume that haunts us with unfocused memories. Sissy Spacek plays Hilly’s mother with a piquant wit that recalls Thelma Ritter and Shirley MacLaine. She may not remember which city she is in or whether it is too hot to wear a coat, but she can spot a hypocritical witch when she sees one, even if it is her own daughter. Cicely Tyson plays Constantine, the maid that helped raise Skeeter, carrying both pain and dignity on her frail shoulders. In one scene she touches the penciled lines that have recorded Skeeter’s height over the years with a silent tenderness. No words and just the touch of some frail fingers, yet so much is evoked in that small gesture.
But it is the three leads that rescue the film from its nods to stereotype and melodrama. Emma Stone is the awkward and bookish dreamer, Skeeter, her nickname vaguely alluding to childhood taunts, who decides to write about her insular world from the viewpoint of those looking in, the black maids. Maybe that’s because Skeeter is a sort of outsider herself, an ugly duckling about 90 percent on her way to becoming a swan, but one who hasn’t yet glimpsed her reflection in the pond. Her mind is as uncontrollable as her curly head of hair; she speaks it and takes ideas where they lead her.
Minny (Octavia Spencer) wears her humor – even the “terrible awful” kind – as a mighty armor. But that doesn’t protect her at home, where her abusive husband is no less cruel than the rest of the world. She is suspicious of the world of whites but finally decides to tell her story to Skeeter, maybe because it has been percolating too long in her breast.
But the film really belongs to Viola Davis, who narrates the story as Aibileen, the black maid who has loved and raised almost 20 white babies. Before she even writes a word for Skeeter’s book, we see the years of pain and humiliation in her stiff gait, her stoic countenance, and averted eyes. Yes, as we all saw in Doubt, she can cry quite convincingly, and her tears do finally roll in The Help as well. But it is that tension before the flood, the rigid body and wooden features, that is the testimony to her acting skills. Ms. Davis’s shoulders carry not only the painful past of her Aiblileen, but the film as well. Perhaps she will win more than an Oscar nomination this year.
In a summer filled with dry spells, literally here in Texas as well in the film world, The Help is a green oasis of near perfection that slakes our thirst.
Of course, it is tempting to feature Minny’s recipe for Chocolate Pie here, seeing the pivatol role it plays in the film. Without giving away any details about its “terrible awful” secret ingredient, I am declining it as a feature. However, for those of you interested here is a link to a delicious version of Minny’s pie that I’m sure will please.
I’m going to concentrate on her recipe for Southern Fried Chicken. How oversensitive we have become, some critics and viewer bemoaning the sentiments and dialect that Minny expresses here. I think both are delightful, as well as Minny herself.
"Fryin' chicken jus' tend to make you feel better about life."
Like a certain father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who sees the cleaning power of Windex as just one of its many uses, especially as an all purpose cure all for any ailment, Minny has similar praise for Crisco, that once ubiquitous entry in all pantries until lard, even vegetable lard, was shunned to cholesterol hell. But back in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as the rest of America in the 1960s, Crisco was the thing. I’m told the current version has been changed to be more healthy, though I doubt it reins supreme in the pantry as it once did. A recent test in Bloomberg’s Trans Fatless New York disclosed some perhaps sad data though. Pie crusts were flakier, French fries more crispy with Crisco than either butter or any of the highly praised healthy oils.
So let’s hear it for Crisco from Minny’s own lips:
Ain’t just for frying. You ever get a sticky something stuck in your hair, like gum? That’s right, Crisco. Spread this on a baby’s bottom, you won’t even know what diaper rash is. Shoot, I seen ladies rub it under they eyes and on they husband’s scaly feet. And after all that it will still fry your chicken.
Why not give it a try, just this once, with our recipe for the best fried chicken you will ever taste. I guarantee it will “jus’ make you feel better about life.”
Classic Southern Fried Chicken
One 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon seasoned salt, such as Lawry's
1 teaspoon seasoned pepper, such as Lawry's
24 ounces solid vegetable shortening, such as Crisco
Pat the chicken pieces dry and line a baking sheet with wax paper. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the milk. Add the chicken. In another bowl, whisk the flour with the seasoned salt and seasoned pepper. Dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour and transfer to the baking sheet.
In a 12-inch, cast-iron skillet, heat the vegetable shortening to 365°. Add all of the chicken and fry over moderate heat, turning occasionally, until deeply golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted nearest the bone registers 170°, 20 to 24 minutes. Drain the chicken on paper towels and serve right away.
Recipe Source: Food and Wine.com