Attack the Block

Our summer of the aliens ends with the best alien encounter movie of the decade. “Attack the Blockz’ has it all: mysterious creatures crashing out of the sky; kids on bicycles pedaling to save the planet; a mass of hairy apes climbing up buildings; and avowed enemies uniting against the invaders. Add to this a truly libertarian hero who learns that “actions have consequences,” and enough blood to paint an elevator. What more could you want from a summer movie?

You might not have heard of “Attack the Block,” but you probably know its pedigree. It’s a British film produced by Edgar Wright, who made “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and last year’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” I have to admit, these films are an acquired taste, but I think they are a taste worth acquiring.

The story takes place in a neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings in the poor part of south London. As Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks home from her job as a nurse, she is mugged by a gang of threatening young men in ski masks. Their crime is interrupted by an alien falling out of the sky and into a car right next to them, and Sam is able to run away. The rest of the film follows the young thugs as they first try to make money from the beast and then run for their lives as the creature’s larger pals come looking for it.

One of the unexpected delights of this film is the way we get to know the boys themselves. These are not hardened criminals but novice thugs on bicycles who strut down the street to impress each other while surreptitiously calling home to reassure their parents that they will be back by ten. Interestingly, Joe Cornish says he was inspired to write this film by being mugged by a gang of boys who seemed as scared as he was. They are led by a young tough with the unlikely name of Moses (John Boyega), who turns out to be quite the leader–almost like the preacher in Poseidon Adventure.

Moses recognizes that they can’t rely on the police to help them, or even to believe them, so they must rely on themselves to escape the aliens and save the block. They don’t seem to feel it is their responsibility to save the world, just their own little corner of it. As a libertarian, I like that. And then there are the unexpected side characters: the crazy drug dealers who get involved, the little wannabes who call themselves Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao) . . . and the rich kid wannabe . . . and the crazy weapons . . . and clever lines . . . Just trust me. It’s a great movie. And the less you know in advance, the better.

This is the best kind of sci-fi horror movie. Early encounters with the aliens take place off screen or behind walls, with sudden quick bursts of teeth or fur that don’t let us focus enough to see what they look like. We just know they are terrifying. We see them creeping through the shadows, with occasional glimpses of their neon-bright teeth, but we don’t have a full view of the creatures until at least half-way through the film. To be sure, there’s enough blood and gore to warrant the R rating, but the violence is brief and somehow fun.

Give “Attack the Block” a try. You’ll be laughing with horror and screaming with delight.
“Attack the Block,” directed by Joe Cornish. Studio Canal, 2011, 87 minutes.

The Help

“The Help” is the film everyone has been talking about this week. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, it has been eagerly awaited by book club members and sensitive readers nationwide since it was published two years ago. The film provides an intimate look at the often demeaning relationship between white women in Mississippi and the black maids who served them during the turbulent 1960s.

During this time, women up north were beginning to recognize the vast career options available to them. But in the deep South, women were still staying at home with their children, joining the Junior League, hosting bridge clubs, and criticizing “the help” — and each other. In this story, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the “queen bee” whose opinion matters to everyone, black or white. She controls the social life of the town by voicing her opinions firmly and then leads the shunning of anyone who dares to disagree with her. Her kind of female has always existed, of course, and not just in the South. She has been immortalized in such films as” The Women” and “Mean Girls,” and can still be found controlling social groups, PTA meetings, cheerleading squads, and even board rooms, with a raised eyebrow and a withering look. No one likes her, but no one dares to cross her.

In the story, Hilly has been leading her group of friends since grade school. All of them are now married with children, except Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has chosen to finish college and wants to become a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper as an advice columnist answering questions about house cleaning. Ironically, of course, Skeeter has never polished a spoon or scrubbed a bathtub ring in her life. So she turns to “the help” for help, in the person of Aibileen (Viola Davis), her friend Elizabeth’s maid. Eventually she convinces Aibileen and a dozen other maids to share their stories, and a book is born.

Aibileen is what Skeeter ought to be. Like many white college graduates, Skeeter simply “wants to be a writer.” She doesn’t have a burning topic just itching to come out. She wants the title of “writer” as much as she wants the occupation. When she applies for a job at Harper & Row, the editor (Mary Steenburgen) tells her, “Write about something that disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.” Skeeter looks for a topic that will allow her to become a writer, rather than using her writing to expose a problem she cares deeply about. Aibileen, by contrast, is simply a writer. She writes every night for an hour or two. She writes what is in her soul. She writes her prayers.

In many ways, Viola Davis as Aibileen carries the show and at the same time embodies the central conflict of the story. I say this because, although Davis is one of the finest actors in Hollywood, with an Oscar to her credit, you will seldom see that accolade in print without the modifier “black actress.” As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights: Our schools and neighborhoods are fully integrated. We have a black president in the White House. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly. I would love to ask Davis how she feels about the roles she has been offered.

Equally impressive is Octavia Spencer as Aibileen’s best friend, Minny Jackson, an outspoken maid who has lost so many jobs because of her sassy back talk that she now works for the last woman in town who will hire her–Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is shunned by the ladies because of her “white trash” background. Celia doesn’t know the rules of maid-employer relationships. Ironically, Minny teaches Celia the boundaries she and the other maids are trying to expose with Skeeter’s book. Spencer’s large liquid eyes alternately shine with sharp-witted laughter and melt into pain-filled tears. If Aibileen is the soul of this black community, Minny is its heart.

Having read the book, I wasn’t pleased to learn that the beautiful Emma Stone had been cast as the tall, skinny, unattractive Skeeter, since her gangly appearance is such an important part of her character. But somehow Stone manages to look like a plain Jane in this film–her eyes are too big, her lips are too thin, her hair is too curly, and her face is too pale. In short, she is perfect.

Despite having grown up in Jackson, Skeeter really doesn’t fit in with her snooty friends. She is disturbed by Hilly’s insistence that Elizabeth install a separate bathroom for Aibileen. In fact, Hilly wants a law mandating separate facilities in private homes, “for the prevention of disease.” This prompts Skeeter to examine the way maids are treated by the women who employ them. “Colored women raise white children, and twenty years later these white children become the boss,” she muses. “When do we change from loving them to hating them?” Aibileen observes the same dilemma: “I want to stop that moment coming–and it come in ever white child’s life–when they start to think that colored folks ain’t as good as whites.”

Toilets, and the material that goes into them, become the strongest recurrent image in this film. From diapers and potty training to vomiting and pranks, toilets are a symbol for what was wrong with the “separate but equal” policy in the south. The facilities were separate, but they most assuredly were not equal. Aibileen’s bathroom is a plywood closet located in a corner of the garage with a bare bulb hanging from a wire, and toilet paper resting on a bare 2×4. The symbol, which emphasizes how badly blacks could be treated by whites in those days, provides moments of both shame and laughter.

However, the film misses the richer, darker, and more sinister tone that underlies the book. For black women to write about their employers was no joke, and the book makes it clear that its women are risking real dangers when they decide to tell the truth. Permanent job loss, physical violence, and even jail are real threats in a society where the mere accusation of a crime can lead to vigilante justice with lifetime consequences. By showing this clearly, the book gains a tension and suspense that is missing from the film.

Strangely, I found it more difficult to enter the minds and lives of the maids while watching the film than I did while reading the book. The story is told through the three voices of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, who narrate alternating sections of the book. These voices are strong and rich, and I could enter their worlds, empathizing with their experiences vicariously. In the film, however, I was merely an observer. I often felt defensive, rather than empathetic, about what I was seeing, as though I were somehow responsible for the actions of those women long ago, simply because I am white. If we learn anything from our battle for civil rights, however, it is that each person should be judged individually, and not collectively as part of a race.

The most important question asked by “The Help” is this: How did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood? Stockett, who was reared in Mississippi by a black maid whom she says she loved, suggests that they learned it from their mothers, by example as well as by instruction. To quote Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific, racism “has to be carefully taught.” But books like this also suggest that children can be carefully taught not to be judgmental. Every day Aibileen tells Elizabeth’s little girl, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” She says nothing about little Mae Mobley’s appearance, good or bad. Knowing that she will likely be fired or retired before Mae Mobley reaches her teen years, Aibileen hopes desperately that these words will be enough.

As is often the case, the film is good, but the book is so much better. Don’t take a short cut this time. Read “The Help” first, and then see the movie. You will enjoy both so much more if you do it that way.

“The Help,” directed by Tate Taylor. Dreamworks, 2011, 137 minutes.