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The right things
August 24, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
From earthquakes to political overthrows, amidst all the chaos in the news lately, it’s heartening to see “The Help” at the top of the movie box-office charts.
Even more encouraging is that it didn’t start there. It worked its way up from the No. 2 spot a week ago This is a rare feat in Hollywood.
Conventional industry wisdom — based on the cynical notion that today’s film audiences suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and/or short memory spans — says to trot out this week’s comic-book superhero on about 3,000 screens Friday night, then try to make as much money as you can before word gets out how bad it is.
Smart phones and texting make this harder than it used to be. But in contrast, “The Help” is a good movie about good people (well, most of the cast) who eventually find the courage to do the right thing.
That was no easy task for the black maids of Jackson, Miss., in the ’60s. Genteel racism was as much a fact of life as the tall glasses of iced tea at the weekly bridge circle of Jackson’s wealthiest young “homemakers.” Civil Rights was still a dream Martin Luther King Jr. had; the reality looked more like early organizer Medgar Evers being gunned down in his front yard.
Kathryn Stockett set her best-seller (still on the list two years later) against this troubling backdrop, then peopled it with more than its share of vivid memorable female characters — some good, some bad, some strong, some weak, some noble, some ignorant.
The noble ones are mostly the maids, the loving, real “mothers” to the future debutantes, who in turn, would grow up to treat them like, well, maids. The film’s villains are white, covering their bigotry with as much Southern-style gentility as their wealthy husbands can afford.
Building separate bathrooms in their homes — well, garages, actually — for the help is their latest cause. It turns out that not all the white women of Jackson feel that way, which drives the story to its expected, but still emotional, conclusion.
Under Tate Taylor’s subtle direction, a dream cast brings this all to the screen — Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spaceck, Aunjanue Ellis, Mary Steenburgen and Roslyn Ruff.
The actresses don’t act their roles so much as they inhabit them. Among all the film’s many wonderful performances, one of the best belongs to the most reprehensible character.
While there’s a predictability to the plot, especially from this historical distance, watching it is still an experience that breaks your heart and puts it back together better than before.
It also has as unexpected effect on audience members old enough to remember those times and that place … or somewhere close. By not focusing on physical violence, but on the underlying bullying ignorance of Jackson’s “finest,” it’s almost unwatchable at times. It also creates a queasy deja-vu.
Perhaps attitudes really have shifted in today’s new South. Or could it be that they’ve just migrated elsewhere?
The smug, self-righteous bigotry recalled in the film generates eerie echoes 50 years later in a land whose regions are now united by the media where talk show empires broadcast their critiques of our country’s first black president 24/7.
Doing the right thing —on a smaller, more personal scale — was also a theme of a presentation titled “Free Your Heart, Free Your Mind” that filled the Historic Iao Theater last week.
The speaker was a 20-year-old Tibetan Buddhist master, Yangsi Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, believed by some to be the rebirth of Kalu Rinpoche, who founded the Maui Dharma Center in 1974 as part of his journey introducing this way of thought to the West.
Clad in a Hawaiian shirt instead of the customary maroon robes, the young spiritual leader’s manner was casual, self-deprecating, almost irreverent at times. Clearly living in this millennium, he apologized for arriving late to the packed, hushed hall with a smile and a “Sorry, guys.”
His unscripted talk, which went on for an hour and a half, was punctuated with lots of laughter and lots of “blah, blah, blahs,” which just made his ancient wisdom that much more accessible.
Delivered with humor and humility, his message was basically to keep it simple, be good to yourself and be good to others.
It sounded a lot like the Golden Rule, underscoring another of Kalu Rinpoche’s ideas — that all the great teachings are basically saying the same thing.
Which, for some strange reason, doesn’t make them any easier to learn, or remember, or practice. • Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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