February 26, 2021

Black-and-White Struggle With a Rosy Glow

Inside the museum footprints of many of the marchers are captured in concrete, Mann’s Chinese Theater-style, along with garments from that day’s fateful confrontation. There’s a model of a Selma jail cell around the early ’60s, where scores of arrested protesters were crammed together, and black-and-white photographs that document the day’s odd mix of hope and brutality.

Holding the many exhibits together, providing context and testimony, are television screens playing the “Bridge to Freedom” episode of the documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” a monumental 14-hour television series that wove news and documentary footage, photographs and first-person interviews into the most ambitious cinematic narrative of the movement to date. Created by Henry Hampton for PBS, it was shown in two parts in 1987 and 1990, but, unfortunately, because of issues with copyright holders the film only became more widely available beginning in 2006.

In this breach all manner of documentary and feature films, from earnest biographies to goofy musicals, have tried to illuminate, not just this period of American history, but also the myriad ways in which humans react when faced with profound moral choices. The latest cinematic endeavor is a feature adaptation of “The Help,” a 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett that has been on the best-seller list pretty much since its release and has been published in 35 countries.

Crucial to the novel’s success, just as it was in “Eyes,” was the narrative point of view. Hampton’s documentary slides powerfully from one witness to another, giving little-known organizers equal weight with the Dr. Kings and Rosa Parkses of the movement. Ms. Stockett, a white woman who toiled for five years on “The Help,” uses the voices of three women (Skeeter, an emerging white liberal writer, and Minny and Aibileen, two black maids she persuades to tell their stories) to telescope a wide range of emotions and experiences in the Jim Crow Mississippi of 1962. If Skeeter is Ms. Stockett’s stand-in, then she makes a bold stretch by using local dialect to voice the experiences of the black women, creating a false sense of authenticity that’s vital to the novel.

In the film adaptation the director-writer Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Ms. Stockett’s, adopts a clever strategy. The film opens and closes with voice-over narration by Viola Davis’s Aibileen, and her voice is interspersed throughout the film. But the narrative is driven by Skeeter’s journey from oddball college graduate to rebellious neo-liberal muckraker, action that happens in the book but is given more prominence in the stripped-down screenplay structure. Minny, played with great wit by Octavia Spencer, is still a huge part of the film, but her narrative voice is sublimated to Aibileen’s and Skeeter’s, which may simply be the difference between a sprawling novel and a Hollywood feature.

A larger problem for anyone interested in the true social drama of the era is that the film’s candy-coated cinematography and anachronistic super-skinny Southern belles are part of a strategy that buffers viewers from the era’s violence. The maids who tell Skeeter their stories speak of the risks they are taking, but the sense of physical danger that hovered over the civil rights movement is mostly absent.

Medgar Evers is murdered in Jackson during the course of the story, but it is more a TV event, very much like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, than a felt tragedy. The only physical violence inflicted on any of the central characters is a beating Minny endures at the hands of a heard, but unseen, husband. At its core the film is a small domestic drama that sketches in the society surrounding its characters but avoids looking into the shadows just outside the frame.

Nelson George is a filmmaker and author. His novel, “The Plot Against Hip Hop,” and documentary, “Brooklyn Boheme,” will both be released this fall.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f4131a67c55dbd11d499db3c26df8c2b

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