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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Help

I’ve got another Monday Matinee feature on deck for this week, and as you well know, this movie is going to have some connection to “Black History Month”.  However, this entry has also inspired me to talk about a subject that means a whole lot to me, and before we get into the film discussion, I’d like to share with some of you a few thoughts that have been running through my head as of recently.

You know, the two year anniversary of this blog is coming up in approximately three months from now, and if you had asked me back in May 2011 if I would have kept this blogging venture on for almost two years, I likely would have not believed it.  You see, I have this really nasty habit of starting big projects, and leaving them unfinished. 

When I was approximately seventeen or eighteen years of age, I sat down and wrote a couple of hundred pages of material that I suppose could have been the making of a novel.  And, when I say that I sat down and wrote it, I don’t mean typing it out on a desktop computer or a laptop.  I mean, I grabbed a stack of loose leaf paper, every pen that I could get my hands on, and wrote until I started feeling writer’s cramp.  You see, back in those days, I didn’t have my own computer.  I would finish schoolwork in the three computer labs scattered throughout my high school, and when I came home, I would go up to my room with a bag of chips, a bottle of pop, and just write, write, write.

I recently unearthed a binder filled with the writing that I did back when I was in the twelfth grade, and I was in complete awe over how hard I must have worked on it.  Sure, the pages are yellowed with age, and some of the pen marks have blurred or smudged from being kept in storage for nearly fifteen years, but it’s still legible.  Of course, as all writers know, we are our own worst critics, and re-reading that binder, I actually cringed at how terrible it was!  Of course, back when I was seventeen, I thought it was going to be something big, and I was really proud of it.  Funny how time changes perspective.

I will readily admit though that I am proud of the fact that I did do so much writing back then, and even though I would have to do a ton of rewriting, it still turned out perfectly.  There was just one problem with it.

It was left unfinished.

You see, sometime between high school and college, I sort of put that binder away in storage and forgot all about it without coming up with a suitable ending for the piece.  Fifteen years later, I still never came up with a conclusion for it.  In some ways, it made me feel sad.  Here was this project that I had spent the better part of a year or two on, and yet I never cared enough about it to give it the conclusion it deserved.

But then, I suppose that’s always been a theme in my life.  Starting something and never finishing it.  And, that’s something that I would like to change.

I always said that I wanted to become a published author.  I wanted to have something physical that I could hold on to with my name on the front cover, and my picture on the back cover.  That way, I would know for sure that I have at least contributed something to the world, and that people would know that I had.  But, you know...I suppose keeping a blog going for almost two years certainly qualifies, doesn’t it?

But just think about it for a second.  Imagine what would happen if every author who ever lived came up with an idea for a brilliant story, only to leave it incomplete?  Wouldn’t that just be terrible? 

I mean, if Kathryn Stocker left her story unfinished, it certainly wouldn’t have been made into one of 2011’s most successful films.  And, Stocker certainly put a lot of time and effort into that piece.  It reportedly took her FIVE YEARS to write her first book, and she shopped it around to as many as sixty different literary agents, each one rejecting her manuscript!  It wasn’t until Susan Ramer took a chance on Stocker, and helped Stocker publish the 2009 novel, “The Help”, which became a New York Times bestseller, staying on the coveted list for over two years!

So, therefore, it’s only fitting that “The Help” was made into a film of the same name, in which a young author tries to get a book published by writing about a subject that was incredibly controversial, but heartwarming at the same time.  “The Help” was released on August 10, 2011, and was directed by Tate Taylor, who also worked on the film’s screenplay.  The movie’s cast included Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, and Allison Janney.  The film earned over $210 million at the box office, and it netted Octavia Spencer an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  Chastain and Davis were also nominated for Academy Awards, and it was also given an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture (it lost to “The Artist”).

In many ways, I can completely relate to the main character of the story (as I’m sure author Kathryn Stockett could as well), as the main character is a young woman named Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) who is wanting to have a career as a writer after earning a university degree.  Set in the state of Mississippi in the 1960s, many seem to look down at Skeeter because she is single (whereas all of her peers have gotten married and have become mothers by then).  Still, Skeeter is very determined to make a name for herself as a writer, and she comes up with the perfect idea for a book after an event takes place that sets the story in motion.

You see, Skeeter grew up on a plantation where she lived with her parents, Charlotte (Janney) and Robert (Brian Kerwin).  During her childhood, her parents didn’t really raise her.  They were too busy maintaining the plantation and being social climbers within the community.  Instead, Skeeter was raised by the family’s African-American maid, Constantine (Tyson).  Upon returning back home from university, she is saddened to learn that Constantine has quit working for the family, and is puzzled as to why she would leave without even so much as writing her a letter.

Eventually, Skeeter lands a job as a columnist for the local newspaper, which answers the questions of homemakers all throughout Jackson, Mississippi.  She does her best to answer the questions honestly, but whenever she got stuck, she had someone else give her the answers for her...the maid of her very good friend, Elizabeth (O’Reilly).

The maid’s name was Aibileen Clark (Davis), and Aibileen had devoted her whole life to raising the children of the rich and affluent white citizens of Jackson, while at the same time grieving the loss of her only child who passed away.  Aibileen is very close with another maid, Minny Jackson (Spencer), whose gourmet cooking skills almost made up for the fact that her sharp tongue and sarcastic wit has given her somewhat of a negative reputation around town.

For a little while, at least, Aibileen answers Skeeter’s questions in her column without much incident...but Skeeter seems to notice a rather alarming trend...mainly the callous and demeaning ways that her friends seem to treat “the help”.  One woman in particular, Hilly Holbrook (Howard) is especially nasty and snobbish towards them.  Would you believe that she even founded an organization known as the “Home Help Sanitation Initiative”, which was a group that lobbied to have separate toilets for black maids to use so that their white employers wouldn’t catch their diseases?

In case you weren’t aware, Hilly Holbrook was a bitch...and a racist bitch to boot.  But the one thing I will say is that Bryce Dallas Howard played her very convincingly (even though I imagine it must have been hard to be so mean)!

Hilly’s attitude was the final straw for Skeeter, and she decided to use her gift of writing to take a stand on the issue.  Being one of the few women in the community who believed in treating everyone equally despite the colour of their skin, Skeeter believed that it would make an interesting book idea if she wrote about the lives of several African-American maids who raised white children in the homes of their employers, and the stories and secrets that they experienced during their tenures.

Of course, Skeeter, being a young white woman, knew that getting the maids to spill their guts was not initially going to be an easy task.  Sure enough, when Skeeter approached Aibileen and Minny about her idea, they were hesitant to speak.  After all, their jobs were all that they had.  If they lost those, they were doomed as far as they were concerned.  But Aibileen decides to change her mind after discovering Hilly’s “Home Help Sanitation Initiative” plan, and tells Skeeter the first story to be included in the book...about how Hilly had fired Minny after Minny had used the indoor bathroom during a violent thunderstorm (which developed into a deadly twister that killed several people).  The end result meant that Minny’s daughter was forced to drop out of school to become a maid herself to keep the family afloat, because Hilly had successfully poisoned the high society women against her with her wicked tongue.

Again, I should state...Hilly is a racist bitch.

Luckily, after Minny also agrees to tell her story to Skeeter, Aibileen manages to get Minny a job working for Celia Foote (Chastain), a woman outcast from the cult of Hilly Holbrook because she committed two cardinal sins...firstly, being born in a working-class family, and secondly...marrying Hilly’s ex-boyfriend!  Minny lucked out though, because Celia and her husband treated Minny with far more respect than Hilly ever did.

So, with the detailed stories of both Aibileen and Minny in her possession, she writes the first draft of her manuscript, and submits it to the editor of Harper & Row Magazine in New York City, Miss Stein (Steenburgen).  On the positive side, Stein loves the idea, and believes that the public would be interested in the project.  But Stein also believes that two stories do not make up a full book.  Before she’ll consider printing Skeeter’s story, she will need the stories of at least a dozen more maids, and advises Skeeter to be hasty in getting more material, as she believed (wrongly, might I add) that the Civil Rights Movement was just a temporary fad.  This certainly puts the pressure on Skeeter, who just wants to give a voice to a group of people who never really had one.

That’s all that I want to say about the plot, because really, this is one movie that you must (and I repeat, must) see for yourselves.  While I’ve been largely disappointed with the box office over the last five years, “The Help” is a picture that is absolutely worth watching.  There are some parts in which you will feel heartbreak and sadness for the maids who literally go through hell at some points in the movie.  You’ll feel anger and frustration over the poor attitudes of the people who deem themselves the “cream of high society” particular with Hilly Holbrook.  But, you’ll also have instances in which you will laugh out loud at some of the antics and comedy that is present throughout the film.  Let’s put it this way.  Octavia Spencer DESERVED that Academy Award for her performance alone!

But, just to keep your appetite wanting more, I’ll provide a couple of more spoilers for you to chew on if you have not yet seen the film.

-          We find out what really happened to the Phelan family maid, Constantine.

-          We find out that revenge is a dish best served disgusting, courtesy of Minny (though considering that the target is Hilly, I say, go Minny)!

-          We find out that sometimes relationships don’t always work out – particularly in the case of Skeeter.

-          And, we find out that Aibilene’s final scene is one that is bittersweet.

You know, I have to give Skeeter a lot of credit.  She ended up coming up with a brilliant idea for a book.  A collection of stories from African-American maids who raised the children of the rich, elite, and white...and the horror in knowing that in some cases, the children would grow up to be just as racist as their parents were.  In Skeeter’s eyes, the book was a statement.  It became more than just a debut by a promising young became a manifesto for change within the community of Jackson, Mississippi, and it represented the voices of several people who didn’t think that they had one.

I hope one day, I’ll be able to write something as poignant and as heartfelt as the project that the fictional “Skeeter” Phelan crafted.  A project that benefits more than just myself.  Maybe one day it’ll happen.  Maybe some of you reading this entry will say that I have already done this...but I know that I can do more.

Until then, I’ll stick to blogging...and maybe re-writing a fourteen year old handwritten manuscript!  J

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