My movie-watching policy, like many things I do, is directed and based upon past experiences. I remember when I was much younger I was dragged to the cinema in Windhoek – in Namibia just in case you happen to play 30 Seconds anytime soon – by some friends of mine and made to endure Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky. That film is one of the lowest points of my life – I personally blame it for not touching a boob for the next five years of my life.
I remember walking out of the cinema having paid R25 (which was an absolute pocket-drainer back in those days) and vowing never to watch what I call “ordinary films” on a cinema screen ever again. By ordinary film, I mean dramas, comedies, rom-coms and any other kind of film that does not have special effects, car chases or impossible fight scenes in. My policy has been followed dictatorially since then: the US summer season means I will be posted at the cinema watching most of the CGI-filled nonsense that Hollywood throws my way, while October and most of November are spent watching the Oscar-hopeful dramas at home on my television or laptop.
Irrational as my policy might seem, there is a certain order to it: it guarantees that when I spend R45 – which is actually pocket-draining nowadays – on a film at the cinema, as a bare minimum I will be provided with insane car-chase scenes; robots transforming into cars; the most creative bank heists the world has ever seen; 1-million-man armies and Persians being kicked into bottomless pits by thick Scottish accents; loud soundtracks and aggressive scores; scantily-clad beauties and the corniest one-liners that Hollywood writers can come up with – Vin Diesel’s “This is Braziiiiiiiil” in Fast Five is the highlight of 2011.
The downside is that on many occasions, the film itself comes up short in many of these areas and sends me home in a Twitter rampage that would have the makers of Green Lantern hung for violating my fundamental human right to only have cool films on the cinema circuit. Another downside – and this is one which many people will understand – is having to share the cinema with any jabbering five-year-old that has decided to watch Transformers 3 at the same time as I have. It is a cruel fate to watch a film with annoying kids asking their suburban Volvo-driving soccer moms what is happening every second minute. Such children are why condoms were invented.
All of that aside, I have stuck to my policy doggedly.
That was until I saw the trailer for The Help a month or two ago.
For some peculiar reason, when I saw the trailer, I flagged it as one of the films I must watch when it came to cinema. In the Remy Universe – such a place does exist – it was a constitutional violation of my cinema policy; as far as I could ascertain there was no reasonable prospect of seeing robots beat the steel of each other and the chances of seeing Vin Diesel and The Rock tussling was next to nil. For some reason though, I patiently waited for the film to come to the South African cinema circuit.
When it did, I called up my girlfriend and told HER we were going to watch The Help. Because SHE – it has to be in capital letters because of this book called Relationships for Dummies – knows me too well and SHE’s awesome like that, SHE asked me if Optimus Prime was going to make an appearance in it. When I told HER it was a drama, I could hear the surprised intake of breath on the other end of the line.
“No robots. No action. No thrillers. No guns. No girls? Are you sure?” SHE asked.
You have to understand the gravity of my suggestion – I am the kind of guy…no, I lie – I am the guy that has an Autobots belt buckle and plans on calling one of my children Batman just so I can say “the Dark Knight Rises” whenever he wakes up in the morning. I am the guy that refused to watch the seventh Harry Potter on cinema because I would be helping it get ahead of Transformers 3 at the box office. I am that guy. I believe that dramas should be read, not watched – I don’t like being depressed. Rémy suggesting The Help on a bright and sunny Cape Town Thursday afternoon is the equivalent of a certain team in North London winning a quadruple this season.
Nevertheless, I suggested it – but that in no way means that a certain team in North London which will not be named will win anything this season. It means some people can change their policies, just to see what will happen. The same cannot be said for a certain team in North London.
The Help, based on a popular novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is a rare cinematic treat that – without giving too much away – explores race relations in Jackson (Mississippi) during the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. The plot can be summarised simply as: racist town – black maids – white-picket-fence white families – unconventional white girl decides to write a book about the black maids – shit hits the fan.
Though the setting itself is not completely new, the angle of the film is: it is narrated and driven by the perspectives of the black maids and the white suburban housewives at a time when John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were stealing the spotlight with their respective politics. Against this backdrop, the film throws your emotions to the lions – or lionesses in this case – and provides a theatrical delight that will leave you as scarred and as teary-eyed as it will leave you thoughtful, humbled and hopefully a little more socially conscious.
This review could delve into the different technical aspects of the film, but that would reveal my ineptitude as a film critic. I will leave that for the more experienced carrot-up-ass critics that have been tearing apart Michael Bay’s godly creations since time began. Instead, I will share three reasons why you need to see this film. Three reasons – that’s it.
Firstly, you need to see this film because it is the only film I have ever seen that explores racism from a female perspective. My memory might be a bit hazy, but I do not remember a single film that dealt with the racism-slavery themes that Hollywood churns out every once in a while from the female point of view. Cry Freedom, Cry, the Beloved Country, Glory, The Green Mile, Amistad, Crash and more recently Invictus and any other film that has the Big Two in it – Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman – will without a doubt be male driven and will undoubtedly have presented most viewers with the slightly warped view that racism was fought along male lines. The popular notion spread by this genre of film is that each and every time a slave was whipped or some poor cotton picker was about to be hanged for looking at the boss’s mistress suggestively, Denzel was on hand to speak eloquently but passionately against the white man’s cruelty.
From the films, it seems as though each and every time, there was some male personality that bore all the drama, all the whippings and ultimately the glory of being that character who brought the audience to tears when the music did that thing it does when you realise Washington or Freeman are about to be hanged or killed.
Racism in films, as far as I have experienced it, has always been male or had some inherently masculine tint to it. When you find a film that diverges from the “white man versus black man” formula, call me. Sure you can say The Colour Purple challenged that, but let’s face it, that was a crap film (based on a crap book) and you probably don’t remember it. I know I don’t.
The Help changes all of that. Through and through, it is driven by women – it brings racism down to such a maternal level of existence – the most comfortable and often, taken for granted level of existence – I am convinced that no one can leave the cinema without having a lump in their throat at some point. More often than not, as the film plays, you find yourself searching for some male personality to help the women with their fight; you pray that Denzel rocks up somewhere and saves the women with his Denzelness. No such thing happens – from the start to the end, the film is largely driven by the women’s stories, their weaknesses, biases and prejudices, their hardships and what I think is lacking from too many films in the 21st century: their strength.
Although the film is largely focused on the race relations in Mississippi at such a volatile point in US history, it touches on other equally important themes: family, sisterhood, economic survival, education, and just because I am a law student and I want you to think I am smarter than I actually am, there is a bit of legalese in there as well. These themes though, are all viewed from female perspectives and that for me makes all the difference.
I might be the only one that has the following argument, but I think the whole good-versus-evil slant in such films (racial dramas) or in any films in general is always responded to in the same masculine way: grabbing a light sabre or saddling up a horse and going to deal out death and justice to all and sundry. The Help not only gets rid of the good-versus-evil formula from the start, but in the small instances where it is used, you never really know who is on the right side of the battle lines. Each of the female characters experiences some kind of conflict, each one comes up with their own solutions and the power and magic of the film is that not every solution reconciles with the viewer’s expectations.
The characters are viscerally beautiful – they don’t offer closure; they reveal the same insecurities that plague modern-day South Africa, USA and most any other country in the world where a maid was – or is –employed; they aren’t always right. The best thing though, is that they aren’t male.
Secondly, you need to watch The Help because by its very theme, cast and marketing, you will not be sharing the cinema with the same riff-raff that follow the film-policy I’ve had since Little Nicky. No awful kids running around in How To Train Your Dragon; no loud and horny teenage boys ruining every man-moment in Fast Five; no annoying dipshits acting as though they knew Leonardo was dreaming the whole time in Inception.
If you watch The Help, you will be with a finer class of people; people who keep quiet in films; people who don’t walk across your line of vision all the time; people who don’t take your seat or have smelly popcorn. The Help is showing at the Cinema Nouveau in Claremont, Cape Town. It is a magical place that up until The Help was released I point-blank refused to set foot in.
You see, according to my Cool-o-Metre, Cinema Nouveau has always been the losers’ cinema downstairs. I – and many other people – have always thought the Nouveau to be a strange place for people who walk around barefoot and hug trees – where such people can watch films about people who walk barefoot and hug trees. I am happy to report that the Cinema Nouveau is one of the best kept public secrets – it is old school, has excellent service (much better than the douchebaggy service upstairs), stylish décor and best of all: no one under the age of eighteen. It is pure cinema bliss.
A film is not just a projection on the screen – it is everything that happens around your seat. Just like you need a 3D cinema screen to rip you off and only half-thrill you or some homies to truly enjoy The Expendables, you need a place like Cinema Nouveau to enjoy a film as incredible as The Help. You need a quiet place to let the themes soak in, and a private atmosphere in case you want wipe a tear or two away.
You have to watch The Help at some art house joint.
Thirdly – and maybe this is a subset of my first reason – The Help is the modern-day equivalent of The Shawshank Redemption. Just as Shawshank is masculine, The Help is its female antithesis. The Shawshank Redemption is listed on film canons as one of the best films of all time. It is Number 1 on IMDB’s Top 250 list. It is my strong opinion that The Help should share that position with Shawshank. The Help has as many memorable lines as Shawshank; it rubs you in all the wrong and right ways that Shawshank did, and most importantly, both films deal with issues of freedom – Shawshank in a prison context, The Help in white suburban Mississippi. All of their characters achieve redemption in one way or the other – The Help is more cryptic than Shawshank in this regard though, and the better for it.
The only reason why The Help will not be considered as Shawshank’s equal is dogma – people are scared of tampering with “Greatest of All Time” lists. Just ask Floyd Mayweather fans.
The beauty and sheer power of The Help – the soundtrack, the cinematography, the script, and all of the other technical terms that go into making a film – are inseparable from the cast of the film: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Cecily Tyson and Sissy Spacek – hardly the Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman powerhouse that Shawshank had at its disposal. The only Hollywood heavyweights, if you can even call them that, are Stone (Easy A, Crazy Stupid Love) Howard (The Village,Terminator Salvation) and Sissy Spacek (Carrie, In the Bedroom). The rest of the cast is an assortment of names that would bamboozle any 30 Seconds team.
The cast though, delivers an impeccable performance. Female casts are always slated for being lacking – remember The Secret Life of Bees? – but the cast of The Help is like the occasional third division team that gets its composition right and manages to run all the way to the final, killing some giants along the way. The Help not only overcomes its supposed “no-superstar” hindrance but also provides two hours of the most riveting human drama I have ever witnessed.
Part of the reason why I think Shawshank has been eclipsed is because The Help is relevant for the here and now – more so than most people think – and because The Help does what Shawshank did with less.
As a parting shot, I have to share this with you. In Shawshank – and here I will assume you have seen the film – there is a scene in which Freeman (Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding) is unsure whether Robbins (Andy Dusfresne) is going to hang himself. For the duration of the scene, all you can think of is how unfair life has been Dusfresne and how justified he would be in taking his life. It is a powerful scene and for me, it is the crowning glory of Shawshank right after Dusfresne’s “Get busy living or get busy dying” line.
The Help has two scenes ten times as powerful that KO Shawshank out of the water – two scenes in which the entire magnitude of racism (past, present and future) truly sinks in. The first one blindsides – it had me chocking on my popcorn. The second one had my tear ducts throwing in the towel. There are no words to describe these scenes – trust me, you will know the scenes when you get there. When you do, call me up and we’ll see whether we can get The Help to the top of that IMDB list.
Author’s note: It took ten cups of tea to write this review. Midway through the third one, I thought about how cool and appropriate it would be to have an orbiting satellite which vaporizes any Cape Town driver that drives while on their phone. Expect an article in the near future.
The “Three reasons – that’s it” line is borrowed from Steve Jobs in a speech delivered at a Stanford graduation in 2005. I am a fan of that speech. I thought I would reference it here.