By Tony Sheppard
Giving voice to the voiceless: “Glee” and “The Help”
Two movies open this week that could barely be any different in style and content, but they do have a commonality – the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless.
“The Help” is adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name and set in the early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi. The currently omnipresent Emma Stone plays “Skeeter” Phelan, fresh from college and back at home, seeing her hometown for what it is. The black maid who raised her has mysteriously disappeared, and she is drawn to the lives and working conditions of the maids in the homes of her friends and acquaintances. She decides she wants to writes about them, to tell their stories from their own perspectives, but the women themselves are reluctant to participate for fear of retribution and being barred from employment.
“The Help” is a great movie, largely because of its excellent cast of strong female actors – and it would be surprising if we don’t hear about at least some of these performances when awards season rolls around. Stone is good as the character that the action swirls around, but the more pivotal performances come from the remarkable Viola Davis (who delivered one of the most powerful performances in the already powerful “Doubt”) and Octavia Spencer as two of the maids. The talented lineup also includes Bryce Dallas Howard as one of the worst of the employers, Sissy Spacek as her mother, Cicely Tyson as the missing maid, and Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother. While some of these roles may cannibalize each other in single award races, they should collectively have a strong chance for the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Award.
The other movie, that you might never expect to be discussed alongside “The Help,” is “Glee: The 3D Concert Movie.” On its face, this is largely a video record of the recent “Glee” concert tour. It’s worth noting that the concerts were not cast concerts so much as shows put on by the fictional McKinley High School Show Choir. In other words, they remain in character throughout both the concerts and the movie. But there’s more to it than that, as the movie breaks to share the stories of some of the young fans for whom “Glee” has been an inspiration.
That may seem odd to non-fans (or non ‘gleeks’) who aren’t familiar with the TV show, but the characters on “Glee” make up a set of minorities generally marginalized in high school culture: A single black student, asian students, the gay boy, the lesbian girl, a fat girl, a guy in a wheelchair, a girl intentionally depicted as stupid, a student with Downs, male athletes who are questioned for wanting to sing and not being ‘manly,’ etc. It’s one of the most diverse groups of students outside of a college recruiting brochure. The bottom line is that it has become an exemplar of inclusion and the idea that everybody can fit in and find a place. That comes through in the personal stories that are recounted during the movie, by people who cite the series as helping them find the courage to be themselves and live their lives without hiding.
Both movies are worth watching. “The Help” is both profound drama and, at times, hilarious but heart-wrenching comedy as the maids recount adversity experienced at the hands of their employers. “Glee” is surprising for going beyond the obvious and, in doing so, proving its own cultural significance, while also being a fun concert movie too.
SACRAMENTO FILM & MUSIC FESTIVAL – PROGRAMMING NOTES
Programming a Film festival is an odd and varied process. Some events go out and proactively seek the best films that they can find, in an extensive search process. We see this approach in such local great events as the Sacramento Jewish, French, Japanese, and Gay and Lesbian Film Fests. Other events are submission-based: A call for films is distributed, and filmmakers from a given area submit their works in the hopes of making it to the top of the pile. This latter approach, perhaps best exemplified on a grand scale by the Sundance Film Festival, is also used (on a more modest level) by the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and that given area is the entire world.
This year, films were submitted from almost 30 countries and in just about every conceivable format or genre. Which means that picking through them is an interesting task – one moment you’re watching a cute music video featuring animated vegetables and the next, you’re watching a feature length psychological thriller. The goal is to find the best and fit them into an appealing program that audiences will want to see. However, the problem with a submission-based Festival is that you never know what you’re going to get.
Last year, for example, we had a full program of animated short films, whereas this year we have only one animated film within a program of student shorts. Films are often grouped more by general category than by subject matter – so you get narrative short films, international short films, etc. – rather than programs defined by comedy, or drama.
So, at the end of the process, it’s interesting when you sometimes find that you’ve chosen films that seem to follow a common theme. This year’s program includes three feature length documentaries, each of which stood out from the crowd and were selected on their own merits. Only later did we realize that they shared the theme of being “different” in America.
The first of these, “Jimmy Murakami – Non-Alien,” recounts one of the worst times to be different in American history. Jimmy Murakami was born in California and probably would have had a fairly ordinary American childhood had he not been Japanese-American and born in 1933. At the age of eight he was transported with his family to the Tule Lake internment camp, and spent the next four years there, learning to resent his own government. After the war the family moved to Los Angeles and Jimmy eventually went to art school and became an animator, going on to great success in the film industry and directing such films as “The Snowman,” “When the Wind Blows,” and “A Christmas Carol.” But he never felt comfortable in the country that imprisoned him as a child and never fully came to terms with that experience. The film shares his experience, after 40 years of living in Ireland, of his trip back to California and a pilgrimage to Tule Lake.
In “Hollywood to Dollywood,” twin gay brothers from Tennessee escape their childhood home (for all the reasons you might expect) and move to Los Angeles. There, they spend five years writing a screenplay for their idol Dolly Parton – only to head back across country in a rented RV in the hopes of handing that screenplay to Dolly on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of her theme park, Dollywood. The film contains interesting commentary on the process of writing, including contributions from actor Chad Allen and Academy Award winning writer Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), shares the adventure of the open road, and includes multiple personal stories of exclusion and coming out.
The last of the three, “Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football,” focuses on a community on the west side of Dearborn, Michigan. Here, after decades of immigration, the local population has changed so much that Fordson High School is now 98% of Arab descent, and overwhelmingly Muslim. But their other defining characteristic is their love of football, with boys following older brothers, fathers and uncles onto the high school squad. The film follows the team over a period of ten days, considering the question of what it means to be Muslim in a post-9/11 America through person
al stories, as they prepare for their big cross-town game with Dearborn High. This is complicated by Ramadan, and a month of afternoon practices and evening games following days of fasting.
Each of the three films is a fascinating depiction of a specific experience but, taken as a whole, they are a compelling account of what it means to fit in, or not fit in, in America. They are three out of 41 films, representing 13 countries, programmed into 12 unique screenings at this summer’s Festival – including locally made short films and student films, and the Festival’s 10×10 Filmmaker Challenge which will include another 25 films (that’s a guess – they haven’t been finished yet…) made in just 10 days, in and around Sacramento.
Each of the 12 screenings costs $10, but you can buy passes (at the Crest Box Office) for all 12 screenings for only $30 if you mention Capitol Weekly, or for the low, low price of $20 if you’re a student.
The Sacramento Film & Music Festival SummerFEST is at the historic Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento, from Wednesday, August 17th to Sunday, August 21st. The full schedule, including trailers for all three films described here, can be found at www.sacfilm.com and you can follow further developments at facebook.com/sacfilm.
Tony Sheppard is Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival, a Professor and Chair of the Faculty Senate at Sacramento State University, and a regular film columnist for Capitol Weekly.