Friday, August 19, 2011

Disney Summer Movies 2011: Help Yourself

I'll be walking along in NYC and this
cuts through the concrete like sunlight
through the clouds. I love it. 
I cannot tell you how glad I am that I didn't blog about The Help last Friday like I had originally intended to. What a difference a week can make. I finished re-reading the book at the end of last week (still amazeballs), went back to see the movie again on Saturday, did a lot of thinking and a lot of discussing and my blog entry now has taken a huge shift from what it would have been. I was completely prepared to spend this entry focusing on the controversy that has surrounded the release. I realize now that that would just be counterproductive. And I am not fan of hollering into a bottomless well, fighting to convince someone of something when they don't want to be convinced, and so I won't.

What I will say after revisiting both the book and the film is that they are both works of fiction and should be taken as such. When you start demanding that authors and filmmakers bend their stories so that they are completely historically accurate, you will have a twisted knot of soulless historical fiction tied by committee. And no one wants to read that. Art is born of the artist's imagination. It is sometimes influenced by history in order to confront and explore the past, not so that it can revise the past. That kind of revision was never anybody's intention.

I have to equate the knee-jerk reaction to my own experience with Brokeback Mountain. As a gay man, I had a choice. I could cock my eyebrow at people's intentions, wag my finger about how the last thing we need are more tragic gay characters, even if they are brilliantly portrayed and question how accurate it is to the story of real gay men in that time and place, whose stories have been mostly unexplored, never recorded and/or lost. Or I could choose to appreciate the fact that a stellar team of artists, all of whom, from actors to director to screenwriters and author, were (as far as I know) straight, had come together to passionately tell a story that they felt was important about human experience that both transcended and honored what makes us different.

I can nitpick about the movie, but by and large I thought it was wonderful and I'm grateful that it got people talking and maybe looking at their own lives and the lives of others in a different light. I know what it's like to be starved for representation in the media. It's so important to see a face like yours on TV, in movies, music or literature. You are overcome with joy when they get it right and devastated when they get it wrong because heaven only knows when the next opportunity will come along.

The British book cover. More
evocative than three birds, huh?
If The Help is not the story you want told, then create your own story, tell it wonderfully and make it heard! I want to hear and see and read it! This is an opportunity to engage and I hope that people take advantage of that. If there are people who refuse to see the movie or read the book, that is their choice and I respect that, but they have no right to judge. I never fail to vote because I feel like if I don't, I have no right to celebrate or lambast the outcome. If there are people who have seen or read it, and, rather than engaging in a dialogue about it, dismiss it, they are simply getting in their own way.

A lot of the things that I feel about the controversy are very succinctly stated in an article by Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly. It gives counterpoint to a lot of the issues that have been brought up regarding the movie and book. Take a moment to read it for a very well thought out and level-headed piece that is far less mired down in the reactionary emotions than the monologue that I would have unleashed upon your poor ears. I'm grateful to him for articulating a lot of what I feel so articulately. Kudos, Owen.

So, after my my first experience with The Help, I was underwhelmed. Immediately after, Tom and I talked at length about its imperfections and how it could have been improved. I now know that this was brought on by a combination of months and months of anticipation, high expectations for an adaptation of one of my favorite books, the fact that I was watching a two-and-a-half hour long movie at midnight after a long day, and a bad experience in a theater where someone was snoring as loud as humanly possible through the majority of the film.

They got the poster right this time!
I'm not going to lie and say that the movie is perfect. It's not. I will say that we were way harsh, Tai, at 3am after that first viewing and it wasn't really the movie's fault, especially in light of the fact that when I revisited it, I adored it. To be honest, the things that we complained about are not even worth mentioning even if they are valid. I lamented things that were inevitably cut from the story. We discussed how it took a bit of time for the film to find its footing at the beginning. And stuff like that there.

When it comes right down to it, what matters is that the movie is emotional, probing, uplifting, funny, and beautifully crafted. Ultimately, it does justice to the book it's based on and the lives that inspired it. I was not a huge fan of director/screenwriter Tate Taylor's first movie, Pretty Ugly People, but had faith that he was at the helm for a reason. He grew up best friends with the author of the book, Kathryn Stockett, in Jackson, Mississippi, which gave him a solid understanding both of her storytelling voice and the time and place.

Taylor made the film look and feel authentically Southern, managed to admirably adapt the book to the screen without destroying it, and actually added things (powerful scenes between Skeeter and her mother, a strong final moment for Hilly and Aibileen) that strengthened it as a film. He was able to successfully guide us through a powerful emotional experience. It's nothing less than a miracle that he made it all work. Both times I saw the movie, during the final shot, which is purely brilliant, and Mary J. Blige's fantastic song "The Living Proof," I was crying so hard that I couldn't catch my breath. That's effective filmmaking.

Above everything else, he cast the hell out of this movie. There is not a weak link in the performances. Viola Davis had better have an Oscar on her mantle this year for her damn near perfect acting as Aibileen. Octavia Spencer, whose personality actually inspired the character of Minnie in the book, breaks out in a big way. Emma Stone, who strangely enough has still not responded to my marriage proposal, gives an unexpected performance as Skeeter that anchors the film deeply and is wonderfully different from any of her other work. Jessica Chastain, playing Celia, was luminescent and was the real discovery for me since I had never seen her in anything before. Work by Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek and the rest of the mostly female ensemble is also fantastic.

I get misty just thinking about this scene.
For me, The Help is a continuation of the series of great, emotionally powerful, female driven, Southern films that includes Steel Magnolias and Friend Green Tomatoes. (By the way, Thomas Newman wrote the scores to both Fried Green Tomatoes and The Help. Steel Magnolias is by Georges Delerue. All three are knockouts.) Young Southern gay boys are going to be as passionate about this film, quoting it line for line, as I was about those two in my younger days. It connects Southern gays to our home, it connects us to our past, and it celebrates the powerful women who make us proud of our heritage.

I think the biggest testament to the power of the film is that I immediately wanted to talk to Mama about it. She was a child living in Tallahassee, Florida in 1963 when the movie is set. (Yes, kids. North Florida is the South.) The night that she saw it, Tom and I got home and immediately facetimed her. We talked for an hour about how the movie reflected her experiences growing up. I learned so much that I had never thought to ask about her past and what it was like to live in the South during the sixties. I realized that the movie had already done something important by encouraging me to explore the stories of those that are close to me and how they have shaped my values. It got me to confront what was ugly and learn from it. It got me to look at what wasn't ugly and celebrate it. My hope is that's what is happening to everyone who sees it.

We would have the cutest babies, right? I said, right?!?
That night, for the first time in forever, I talked to Mama about Icee May, who my family used to visit when I was a kid during our trips back to Dad's hometown of Eufala, Alabama in the eighties and nineties. Dad came from a poor Southern family, and doesn't have a racist bone in his body. He is very typically Southern in many, many ways, from the accent to the predilection for meat that comes in a can, but he never judges anyone based on the color of their skin. I think that this is why the character of Celia Foote intrigues me so much. I know that rampant racism and classism often made for unlikely Southern harmonies. Dad and our family's friendship with Icee May was a testament to that.

Icee May was an older black woman who lived across the tracks from where Grandma Muffin lived. In many Southern towns, though they are desegregated, races are often still somewhat separated. Mama told me that the first time Dad took her home to meet the family, they drove out to Icee May's. Dad introduced Mama, saying "Icee May, this is the girl I'm gonna marry." Icee May took a brief look at her, threw her arms wide and wrapped Mama in a tight hug, laughing and lovingly saying "Look at you! You're so fat!" Mama said that's the moment she knew she loved Icee May.

Her eyes alone should get an Academy Award for acting.
Going to Eufala as a child was always a bit strange. I always felt a bit out of place there, as any gay boy in the deep South is bound to, but visiting Icee May was always a highlight of our trips. She was always so excited to see us, squealing and hugging us close to her. What's sad is that, since I have a memory like a sieve, many details are gone for me. When I think of Icee May, I think of warmth and happiness. I can vaguely hear her voice and feel the cadence of her humor. But beyond that, I don't have a strong recollection of the specifics of our visits.

Mama told me that Icee May's experience was different because she had owned a store. My mind exploded. I wanted to know her story. There was so much that I didn't know. As a child, you don't think to ask about these stories. You just live in the moment of being in someone's presence. When you grow up, things like questioning your past often become buried under other priorities. That is what moved Kathryn Stockett to write The Help in the first place. A desire for understanding and connection. I hope that these feelings that the book and movie have stirred in me keep making themselves known, pushing me on to work towards the same.

Remember the moment when they first walk into the church?
So good! This all makes me wanna go see it a third time!
I cannot wait to talk to Dad and flesh out this piece of my past. And I want to keep talking and find out more. With both Mama and Dad. Their lives are literally a part of me. Their blood is my blood. Their history is mine. And the importance of excavating the stories of the past should never be underestimated. We should all dig around in our history more often and see what new journeys it can take us on. I encourage you to see The Help. Be ready to laugh 'til your sides hurt, cry 'til your shirt's soaked, and think about why you've been moved so much. Above all, be prepared to talk. What we all need is more exploration. More conversation. Not less.

Officially one of my top 5 books ever.
Just before Icee May died, Mama paid her a call. Icee May gave her two batches of quilt tops, one for me and one for my sister. Until I talked to Mama last week, I had no recollection she had made those for us and so when I was told, I could feel a lump in my throat and my eyes get teary. Now, I know what you're thinking. Do the world really need another quilt metaphor? And I say tough nuggets. That's what happens when you read a blog written by a Southern gay guy. There will inevitably be a quilt that takes on an elevated meaning. Sorry bout it.

Here I was, years after she made them, rediscovering these quilt tops because of a movie. I cannot wait to have them in my hands. Each one of those patches will come with an unknown history all their own. I will never have the opportunity to ask Icee May what their stories are, but I can do right by her and have them put together, as they were intended to be, to create a whole. And when I run my fingers over those soft patches, I know that my mind will drift to her, glad that she left them to me, to complete on my own, to remember her by, imagining what each one would say if it could talk to me. What stories would it share? And I am thankful to The Help for reminding me to look into my own life, gather up the patches of my history and get them sewn together.

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