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Activists bolster political causes with ‘The Help’ and ‘A Better Life’

By David Montgomery, Published: February 29 Washington Post The golden statuettes have been stowed, the red carpet rolled up, the borrowed designer baubles returned, but a determined band of movie crusaders is working frantically to make this Oscar moment last forever. They include nannies, house cleaners, immigrant day laborers and savvy activists who are seizing a PR opportunity scripted by Hollywood. When Octavia Spencer won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Minny in “The Help,” women attending Oscar-watching parties across the country broke into cheers of “We are ‘The Help.’ ” Those parties were organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is using the film internally to build spirit and self-esteem, and externally in political lobbying campaigns. The pinch-me feeling of seeing people like themselves sympathetically portrayed will not wear off soon, say the nannies. It was almost as if their lives and struggles were up for Academy Awards. “I am super happy that we won something,” said Antonia Pena, originally from Colombia, who at 15 started cleaning, cooking and caring for seniors, and now organizes other domestic workers at CASA de Maryland, the immigrant rights group. “I hope it will sensitize people about our work, and that our struggles will be seen all over.” Political activism around socially conscious Oscar contenders has an established history. Remember the white bows that some celebs wore in support of gay marriage at the 2009 ceremony, when Sean Penn won best actor for “Milk.” And Tom Hanks, in his 1994 acceptance speech for best actor in “Philadelphia,” paid emotional tribute to gay mentors and people who had died of AIDS. But this year the activism seems a little more intense and organized, thanks to social media strategically deployed to engage the public, and also to an awareness by the filmmakers that, in as much as films can bolster causes, causes can bolster films. What difference it all ultimately makes is harder to calculate. But the fact that “The Help” film didn’t win best picture hasn’t blunted the activists’ fervor; nor does it seem to matter to them that Viola Davis wasn’t named best actress. And never mind that attendees at similar watch parties set up by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network could not celebrate a best actor win for Demian Bichir’s portrayal of an undocumented worker from Mexico in “A Better Life.” “He has already won for us,” said Pablo Alvarado, a former day laborer from El Salvador and now director of the Los Angeles-based day laborer network. “We’re going to give him the day laborer Oscar anyway.” He’s making plans to present the special award to Bichir at a screening March 22 in New York. It will be a golden statuette of a day laborer hailing down a truck for work. Using social media Because of the popularity of the book “The Help,” the domestic workers alliance saw an opportunity before the film was even released. Although the story is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s, the alliance thought it could be used to generate empathy for nannies and to build support in state legislatures for wage and hour protections for domestic workers. “It’s a huge opening to create space in the public imagination for domestic workers today,” said Ai-jen Poo, director of the New York-based alliance. Before the film hit theaters, the alliance posted a YouTube video called “Meet Today’s Help,” featuring real domestic workers. The alliance was encouraged that it got 9,000 hits. Then the film came out and was a box-office success, grossing about $170 million. Participant Media, a producer that helped finance “The Help” and specializes in building “social action” campaigns around its movies, designed one for “The Help.” It included inviting nannies to send in their personal stories and producing more short videos featuring real domestic workers. Those videos have gotten 100,000 hits on the campaign’s Web site, according to Participant Media. The alliance has tried to sidestep the debate over whether the portrayals in “The Help” are demeaning to African Americans. Members cite Spencer’s speech at the Golden Globes quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the effect that there is dignity in all labor. Meanwhile, the alliance created the Twitter hashtag #BeTheHelp to spread Oscar buzz and news of legislative efforts. The alliance is incorporating “The Help” in its lobbying campaign for a “domestic workers bill of rights” pending in the California legislature. The measure would regulate wages, hours and working conditions there. A #BeTheHelp petition posted at change.org has gained more than 7,000 signatures in support of the bill. “I feel compelled to mention the movie, ‘The Help,’ ” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said to domestic workers advocating for the bill last week at the state Capitol in Sacramento. “Your movement has been able to use ‘The Help’ to advance your activism.” If the bill passes in the coming months, some think “The Help” will deserve part of the credit. But documenting the real-world impact of activism tied to films is tricky. Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin cites another Tom Hanks movie, “Saving Private Ryan.”In early 1999, in the wake of the film’s popular success, and weeks after Hanks lost the best actor competition, the actor announced he would become a spokesman for the planned World War II Memorial on the Mall. At the time, the location was still hotly debated and tens of millions of dollars still needed to be raised. Did Hanks — who credited the movie with raising his own consciousness about honoring the veterans — and the movie help get the memorial built? “Quite possibly,” Maltin says. Easier to assume, if not prove, says Maltin, is that Oscar-nominated movies or roles, with a nudge from activists, can become cultural landmarks that change public understanding of issues and marginalized groups. What “The Help” may be doing for domestic workers, and “Saving Private Ryan” may have done for World War II vets, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) probably did for agricultural migrants and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) for newly returned veterans, Maltin says. “When Marlee Matlin was up for [best actress in] ‘Children of a Lesser God’ ” in 1987, Maltin says, “it created empathy for someone who’s deaf. It humanized her and the way she moves in the world.” Personal portrayals Alvarado, the day laborer organizer, is counting on Bichir’s portrayal of the character Carlos Galindo in “A Better Life” to put a human face on a type of person who has been reduced to an abstract figure of controversy in the hot debates over immigration. “First you have to love who you are,” Alvarado says. “That’s exactly what this film does — help day laborers be proud to be day laborers.” The box office impact of “A Better Life” pales compared with “The Help”; the film has grossed an estimated $1.8 million. But activists continue to spread the word and are distributing thousands of copies of the film for group screenings through informal networks, with the permission of the filmmakers. The film posted its highest ticket sales at the Bethesda Row Cinema, which director Chris Weitz attributes to local activists and immigration policy wonks talking up the drama, which in the end, boils down to a universal story of a hardworking man trying to properly raise his son. “It became kind of a little favorite here,” Weitz said at a screening 10 days before the Oscars hosted by Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis in a packed theater at the Labor Department. “That’s been a big deal for us to be buoyed up by the people in Washington.” Solis showed the movie twice, for students as well as Latino activists, and invited Labor experts on wage enforcement and workplace safety. “I hope people will become sensitized to the plight of workers in low-skilled areas,” she said. “That’s what we lose sight of, the respect for workers in the workplace, no matter who you are.” Weitz and Bichir have been energetically attending screenings and question-and-answer sessions. Before the awards ceremony, it was in their self-interest to raise the profile of the film. But Weitz, for his part, says he had a political motive, as well. “We’re seeking to push back against some of the slanders that have come up in the Republican debates about undocumented immigrants,” he said. “A movie opens a window, and through the window you see the face of someone who has been talked about only in derogatory terms.” Whether the effort will cause more people to look through that window with sympathy is hard to say. But for those faces gazing back, the film’s impact has been profound. “What we saw was our own lives reflected back to us from the big screen,” said Santos Alvarado (no relation to Pablo), a day laborer from Honduras, now in New Orleans, who was attending a recent screening of the film at a day laborer convention in Los Angeles. The movie made him cry, he says. “It leaves you speechless when you see your own life on the screen as if you were one of the actors.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/activists-bolster-political-causes-with-the-help-and-a-better-life/2012/02/28/gIQAcg6BjR_story.html