Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Help: Top-notch cast and a movie of substance

The Help, based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, is a story about three courageous women who come together to expose the unjust way in which African American housemaids were treated in 1960s era Jackson, Mississippi.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is a young, aspiring writer who lands her first assignment after returning home to Jackson after attending college. Since the assignment is a cleaning advice column, (a subject that Skeeter knows nothing about), she enlists the help of an expert: African American housemaid, Aibileen (Viola Davis). After witnessing the cruel way in which Skeeter’s white, childhood friends speak about and treat their black housemaids, however, Skeeter soon realizes that there is an important story to be told, here-- that of the lives of the maids working for white households. After much convincing, Skeeter recruits Aibileen to help her in this endeavor and the two women risk job loss, social exile, arrest, and worse in order to secretly meet and record these stories. Despite all of this, Aibileen’s best friend and fellow maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer), soon joins the cause, as do many other maids. What results is a quiet revolt in the form of a collection of writings that turns Jackson’s social structure on its head.
Eventually, this endeavor becomes much more than an assortment of tales exposing the prejudices of a few white households. It transforms into an important movement that has a legitimate chance of facilitating change in Jackson, Mississippi and beyond. The journey also serves to bring change to the individual women involved in the project, imbuing each with a feeling of power over their lives and a renewed sense of hope for the future.

Performances: Emma Stone tends to shine in everything she’s in and this movie is no different. She is fresh, yet determined in this film, and her sweet and honest performance holds our hearts throughout. (In the scene where Skeeter’s mother reveals the truth about Constantine, the family’s maid, Stone’s performance causes the audience to suffer along with her and want to comfort her, all at the same time). Viola Davis is wonderful as Aibileen, gifted enough to convey both extreme pain and cool indifference with a simple look, and Octavia Spencer’s Minny is comical, merely through her display of straightforward honesty. But perhaps the most memorable performance was the one given by Bryce Dallas Howard as “Hilly”. Hilly is the head of the white, social group in Jackson and makes sure to remind everyone of this. An obviously unhappy person, Hilly scrutinizes every step the housemaids and even her own friends make, waiting for her chance to pounce on any type of defiance. Howard plays this part perfectly. Although Howard’s “Hilly” is more of a caricature of this type of persona than a realistic, understated character (such as Davis’ “Aibileen”), you end up disliking Hilly so much (even after you leave the theater), that it is obvious Howard has done a good job in portraying her.

Written and directed by Tate Taylor, this Dreamworks film stars an almost all-female cast, including Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard. It is based on the bestselling debut novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. Staying quite true to the book, The Help focuses on Skeeter’s observation of the inconsistent treatment of the African-American help - how they are allowed to raise white children, yet are considered as “contaminated” and frequently humiliated. Somehow, these women still continue to work, teach, and love.

Set in the 1960s, Emma Stone stars as aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan, who is fresh out of college and returning back to Jackson, Mississippi to land a job at the local newspaper and reunite with her Southern socialite friends. This includes the prejudiced and self-righteous queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Howard), who later on uses her position to pass a sanitation initiative against the help and to ostracize those who cross her. Three women’s tales weave together as Skeeter decides to write a book about the help and first enlists Aibileen Clark (Davis), the housemaid of the Leefolt family who, although gifted in raising white children, is still struggling with the death of her only son, and Minny Jackson (Spencer), a feisty maid and talented cook (specialties: fried chicken and pies) who experiences a change in her work as she is hired by Celia Foote, a clueless newcomer who is desperate to be accepted by the other gals in town and to learn how to cook. Two stories gradually transform into over a dozen as more of the help are emboldened to step forward and tell their stories.

It is the four actresses who play the three protagonists and antagonist of the film who bring this heartwarming tale to life. Stone is like a breath of fresh air; in the way she portrays Skeeter being enlightened, she inspires the audience as well. Howard does Hilly Holbrook justice - if anything, it is the character herself who seems to symbolize nothing but racism and evil, and endures a large dose of retribution in the end (a bit too much, in fact). The amount of hatred the audience feels toward Hilly can only be praise towards Howard’s depiction. Davis and Spencer are especially to be commended for giving superb, if not Oscar-worthy, performances. Spencer infuses The Help with well placed remarks and actions, as well as the “Terrible Awful” that had the audience rolling in their seats with laughter. Davis is a compelling force and holds the movie on her shoulders; her final scene will bring tears to the watcher’s eyes.

Face it, it hasn’t been an impressively substantial summer for films. This is the kind of movie that will warm hearts and touch souls. Modern society is filled with horror at how anyone could have allowed this sort of treatment to take place fifty years ago, wonder at the strength that the help possess and the love they have for the white children they care for, and compassion forSkeeter, Minny, and Aibileen, who are all complex characters with journeys of their own. The Help is beautifully adapted from the book to the big screen, and for anyone who understands the racial tensions during the Jim Crow era, it is an uplifting movie that will not be forgotten.

Boston Irish pub refused to serve blacks says Attorney General

A group of friends went to Peggy O’Neil’s Pub and Grille for a winter birthday celebration, but the fete quickly soured when some in their party were banned because of the color of their skin, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office alleges in a civil rights lawsuit.

The people left standing outside in December were African-American, Hispanic, and Cape Verdean, said the suit, announced yesterday. The birthday celebrant, who was white, was already inside. She came out and tried to intervene, but her efforts were in vain. Owner Caron O’Neil, the suit said, refused to let the other guests come inside.

“When it became clear that they were not going to be allowed into Peggy O’Neil’s to celebrate their friend’s birthday, the friends left the bar feeling hurt, confused, and embarrassed,’’ according to the suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office alleges that the Dorchester establishment engaged in a discriminatory and unlawful pattern of not admitting minorities. The diverse birthday party arrived in two groups that were turned away separately. A third group of black women was allegedly denied entry in April.

The suit seeks monetary damages, civil penalties, antidiscrimination training, and the creation of an antidiscrimination policy.

“No one who lives, works, or visits Massachusetts should be subjected to discrimination,’’ Coakley said in a statement.

The O’Neil family denied the allegations, insisting that bias and inequity are not tolerated on the bar’s premises.

The Attorney General’s charges detail how a group of locals went to Peggy O’Neil’s to celebrate a birthday but the black and minority people in the group were not allowed in.

The people left outside were African American, Hispanic and Cape Verdean said the lawsuit.

The birthday celebrant, who was white, was allowed in and she tried to get her friends to be allowed inside with her but the owner, Caron O’Neil refused.

“When it became clear that they were not going to be allowed into Peggy O’Neil’s to celebrate their friend’s birthday, the friends left the bar feeling hurt, confused, and embarrassed,’’ according to the suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court.

The Attorney General’s lawsuit alleges that such incidents occurred on three different occasions at the bar.

“No one who lives, works, or visits Massachusetts should be subjected to discrimination,’’ Coakley said in a statement.

However Caron O’Neil is taking strong exception to the lawsuit.

“Absolutely, we do not discriminate against anybody...We’re a Dorchester neighborhood bar. That’s our customer base,’’she told the Globe.

Peggy O’Neil’s has been a fixture in Dorchester for over 50 years and is named after family matriarch, Irishwoman Peggy O’Neil who died last May.

The law suit also alleges that Amilton Baptista and an African-American friend were discriminated against on December 17th last.

The waited outside as ten white people were allowed in but they were refused.

Eventually owner Caron O’Neil allegedly came out and asked them if it was their first time there and advised them to leave.“We don’t want any trouble tonight. I don’t know you guys, and you should try to find another place to go” she told them according to the lawsuit.

Baptista’s brother was also refused entry and watched as dozesn of white people were allowed entry.

“Many of those same Caucasian patrons who were allowed into Peggy O’Neil’s appeared to be intoxicated and were dressed more casually,’’ the suit alleges. “The friends also saw the bouncer reprimand a Caucasian patron for a problem with her identification card, telling her she could ‘get in trouble,’ and proceeding to allow her into the bar.’’

When Caron O’Neil came outside, the suit alleges she told the group: “We don’t like people of your kind here. We’ve been doing this for a while and it’s been working fine and we don’t want any problems. . . . I’m not letting you people in.

Appeals court reinstates African-American firefighter suit

New Haven, CT - In a 26 page decision, a U.S. appeals court resurrected new life into a lawsuit many thought was dead.

The court ruled that Fire Fighter Michael Briscoe, an African American, can sue the city of New Haven, Connecticut…after claiming its promotions test for firefighters is biased.

The ruling complicates an issue many legal expert considered resolved by the United States Supreme court. In that case, that started in 2003, white New Haven firefighters, who grossly out performed minorities sued to have their test scores reinstated after the City of New Haven attempted to have them thrown out under pressure from Minority groups.

In 2009, the conservative US Supreme court ruled in favor of the white firefighters. But in Monday’s decision the lower appellant court ruled the city can’t hide behind the Supreme court ruling because Briscoe’s suit was filed separately from the 2003 class action.

“He was very gratified to know he was going to have his day in court" said Briscoe's attorney David Cohen. "The New Haven Fire Department has a long history of struggle with discrimination and efforts overcome discrimination”

The New Haven lawsuit is one of many legal cases across the country in which black fire fighters claim they are aggressively discriminated against either in practice or in policy.

In May the courts ordered the city of Chicago to hire more that 110 African Americans who were passed over for jobs. The city was also ordered to pay tens of millions of dollars in restitution.

The case dates back to 2003, when New Haven sought to discard the results of a firefighter promotion exam where white firefighters significantly outperformed minorities. That act prompted a group of white firefighters and one hispanic firefighter to challenge the decision and sue New Haven.

The Supreme Court took up the case, Ricci v. DeStefano, in 2009. The court sided with the firefighters, ruling that New Haven had not shown sufficent evidence to prove that keeping the test results would have made it subject to disparate-impact liabity. Disparate impact laws were cemented under Title VII of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights law.

Normally, that decision would have ended further litigation. But because Briscoe brought his claim separately, Jacobs ruled he had standing to sue New Haven, in spite of the conflicting Supreme Court decision.

In his opinion on Monday, Jacobs said that New Haven could not use the Supreme Court to shield it from Briscoe's disparate impact claims, and that the high court's opinion did not preclude him from suing.

"I think the opinion is essential to maintaining the vitality of the disparate impact theory of liability under Title VII," Briscoe's attorney, David Rosen, said.

Title VII, Rosen said, protects "against the arbitrary use of selection devices that continue to be barriers to employment for well-qualified workers across America who happen not to be good at the particular pencil and paper, multiple choice-format quiz that some employers still insist on using."

"At the end of the day, the City of New Haven believes that the U.S. Supreme Court held that certification of the promotional exams at issue in the Ricci v. DeStefano case should not result in disparate impact liability by African American firefighters after the fact," said City of New Haven Corporate Counsel Victor Bolden

The 2003 New Haven firefighter test at issue was 60 percent written and 40 percent oral. Briscoe in his lawsuit said that under a 30 percent written, 70 percent oral test he would have been promotable.

Gray wants big turnout at King events to back self-rule

Thousands of visitors will descend upon the National Mall in Washington, D.C. later this month to witness the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial -- a moment that has been 25 years in the making.

Event organizers have had to overcome a number of obstacles, such as public criticism, and now one more stands in their way -- a $6 million hurdle.

"It's been an uphill battle all the way, but we are confident that we'll reach our goal," said Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc.

The four-acre site, complete with a 28-foot high granite statue of King, stretches from the Tidal Basin to Independence Avenue, and sits between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. It also comes with a $120 million price tag. So far, organizers have raised $114 million through private and public donations.

To reach its financial goal, the foundation has employed a number of grassroots strategies, such as children raising donations at school-based events.

MLKmemorial.org reported that the Maurice W. Downing Elementary School of Malverne, N.Y., raised $1,978 during its "Reading to Build a Dream" fundraiser. Grade school students and the Parent Advisory Council at George Manierre School in Chicago hosted a dance where they raised more than $600. The African American Organization at Owings Mills High School in Baltimore, Md., hosted a number of events, including a basketball tournament to raise $1,000.

An estimated 250,000 people are expected to visit the Mall for the dedication ceremony and other events.

The District-related events will include D.C. Residents Day on Aug. 23, for which tickets are no longer needed because of the high demand. There is also a march for D.C. statehood on Aug. 27 that starts at Freedom Plaza and proceeds to a spot near the memorial at the Tidal Basin.

Chuck Hicks, chairman of the D.C. Black History Celebration Committee, said that a brochure about the city and its non-state status will be circulated during festivities.

He said the memorial dedication, which is expected to draw many from outside the city, is an appropriate stage for D.C. issues.

“I believe people see that it fits into the whole picture,” said Mr. Hicks, who heads the host committee for dedication events.

Gray spokeswoman Linda Wharton-Boyd said “nobody has objected yet” to trumpeting D.C. issues during the dedication week.

For the second time this month, Mr. Gray referred to a quotation from King in 1965 that indicates he backed full rights for D.C. residents.

King said Congress had been “derelict” in its duty to make freedom a reality for all residents of the District, Mr. Gray said.

He also said celebrities in attendance may be asked to do a 30-second media spot “talking about bringing justice to the District.”

The mayor said he is always surprised by those who believe D.C. residents have the same representation rights as all Americans or that the District is fully funded by the federal government.

Officials are still working on road closures and other logistics, but that information will be available on event-specific websites and on signs across the city, said Millicent W. West, director of D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Said Mr. Gray: “Frankly, given the magnitude and complexity of this, there will be issues that will continue to evolve right up to the last minute.

Obama to speak at King memorial dedication in Washington D.C.

President Obama will speak Aug. 28 at the dedication of the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall, the White House announced Thursday.

The ceremony will mark the 48th anniversary of King's "I have a dream" speech during the March on Washington in 1963.

The $120 million memorial will feature excerpts from King's sermons and speeches, as well as a sculpture of the civil-rights leader. Located between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, it's the only monument on the Mall that does not commemorate either a president or a war.

In addition, members of the King family, as well as civil rights leaders including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, will have roles in the ceremonies, the foundation said.

The $120 million memorial, 14 years in the making, is almost finished. It features a 30-foot, 8-inch granite sculpture of King set amid the cherry trees on four acres on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin.

The statue depicts King in a business suit with his arms folded, holding a scroll and gazing across the basin.

It is scheduled to be dedicated before a crowd of dignitaries and as many as 250,000 people on the 48th anniversary of the day King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

The King memorial is scheduled to open to the public at 11 a.m. Aug. 22. It will be “cloaked” Aug. 26 in preparation for its formal unveiling at 11 a.m. Aug. 28.

“The dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial has been long-awaited, and people from around the world are coming to experience this . . . historic moment,” said Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. “We are excited to welcome them all.”

The foundation has scheduled five days of festivities leading up to the dedication. The Rev. Al Sharpton, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, TV broadcaster Tom Brokaw and writer Maya Angelou are among those who will also participate, the foundation said.

An invitation-only dinner, “Honoring Global Leaders for Peace,” will kick off the festivities Aug. 24 at the National Building Museum and honor those who work for global peace and social equality.

A noon luncheon honoring past, present and future civil rights leaders is scheduled for Aug. 25 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. A four-day King expo at the convention center is set to open the same day.

A civil rights concert is scheduled for 8 p.m. Aug. 25 at the convention center, followed by an Aug. 26 luncheon there saluting women in the civil rights movement.