REVIEW: The Help [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 146 minutes | Release Date: August 10th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Tate Taylor
Writer(s): Tate Taylor / Kathryn Stockett (novel)

“God don’t pay no mind to color when he decide to set a tornado loose”

I guess it’s my own fault for not paying attention to the advertisements, but I really thought The Help was based on a true story. The author was Emma Stone‘s Skeeter Phelan and the stories told were authentic orations of the maids in her Jackson, Mississippi community. Those trailers had ‘inspired by a true events’ somewhere, right? Or is the fact the film occurs during an historical event like the Civil Rights movement real life inspiration enough? Or am I that oblivious?

No, no, and yes. The Help is a bestselling debut novel from a forty-year old white author named Kathryn Stockett. Yes, her brother’s former maid did try to sue for stealing the story of her life—either a lack of smarts thinking changing the name Aibileen to Abilene would work on behalf of Stockett or a good attempt to cash in on the similarity despite no real correlation for the ‘victim’—but that doesn’t mean anything depicted is more than the fanciful imagination of its creator. This lack of truth proves a bit detrimental when looking back—especially at the key vengeful act from Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). What seemed far-fetched was accepted because it may have actually happened. Knowing now it most likely didn’t, some of the dramatic import fades away.

That said I still found Stockett’s tale and screenwriter/director Tate Taylor‘s vision to be quite engrossing, emotionally relevant, and an intriguing look into an important point of America’s evolution. When the question of how a black maid feels being paid less than minimum wage to raise as much as seventeen white children throughout a career while barely seeing her own, you look at Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and crane your neck to hear better the answer you’d love to discover. A quick glance later at a young gentleman’s photo hanging under the portrait of Jesus every Catholic’s grandmother had hanging in her home and teary eyes show the pain of her response is too hard to bear. It’s even harder when the boy she hardly saw leaves this Earth far too soon.

Revolving around Skeeter’s drive to become a working journalist and use the college education she earned while high school friends got married, the movie loses its way at times by focusing on the wrong things. While we’d love to see this young girl succeed and overcome petty quarrels with the town’s debutantes, every time we watch the joyfully evil Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her lemmings say and do racist things means less time experiencing two actors in Davis and Spencer who grab our attention and captivate like few performances this year. To see their constant flux of good humor within their community and stoically forced properness when at work is where The Help shines. I know their employers exist in a world where the elite’s bigots make them choose society over courage. I want to discover the psyche of the women who become more mother than maid and had to watch those children grow to be hateful and weak like their biological progenitors.

Nothing is wasted, though. Watching Howard and Stone walk through their world as completely different people shows how society shapes each individual separately. Stone’s Skeeter grew up with a mother (Allison Janney) telling her she was ugly and worthless while her maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) never wavered in a belief this girl would do something great. Howard was the pretty, popular one who had life served on a platter. So she had no problem continuing that way of living when the time came to employ a servant of her own. The story becomes a matter of one’s understanding of the concept ‘separate but equal’. Both raised by colored women, seeing the experience as either love or duty lies in the eye of the beholder based on education and environment. All the while their mothers sit at home believing they deserved the title.

It’s no surprise than that the lack of respect cultivated almost five to one against Skeeter’s compassion would make these women open up about the good, bad, and ugly of their lengthy tenures inside the homes of the upper middle class. Years of sorrow, backhanded compliments, and a prevalent inequality formed unrest and bitching sessions within their own neighborhoods, but watching the injustice unfolding around them as men like Medgar Evers dies is the final straw. Bravery becomes accessible; courage becomes necessary. Possessing a resonate voice from both their large number and the size of their pain, people couldn’t help but listen whether they wanted to or not. America was changing fast. Rather than embolden these strong women breaking the law to speak the truth as central stars, we’re given a white girl who’s unlikely ability to be pragmatic and see who really brought her up changed a nation. Leave it to the white America to take credit for everything.

There is simply too much back-patting going on to take the story too seriously, but at the end of the day The Help is a film aimed at a certain demographic looking for feel good warmth without going too far into the depths of hell these ladies faced. Unimportant problems like finding a boyfriend and watching him leave when the political strife you’ve stirred is too much subvert the issues like raising a family after your previous boss’s grudge makes you unemployable. Characters like Jessica Chastain‘s breath of fresh air Celia arrive to express a truly colorblind nature—albeit one bred from naivety—and fantastic sequences like understanding Janney’s descent when confronted with societal acceptance versus familial bond stun emotionally. Even Sissy Spacek comes and goes to infuse hilarious humor stealing scenes as a member of the old guard who understands making your maid use an outdoor restroom is barbaric.

But while Taylor and Stockett have placed a rosier sheen to events than deserved due to their own misguided need to open our eyes without completely vilifying ancestral bonds, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer ground everything in reality. We all know how good Davis is—one of the best working today—and she doesn’t disappoint as the levelheaded and modest catalyst to a revolution. Spencer, however, is a revelation who transcends the usual sassy black woman roles we normally see her portray. Allowed to give that stereotype dimension, her Minny Jackson’s evolution from misdeeds with the Holbrooks and rebirth with Celia is the highlight of a movie with many great pieces never quite fitting as well as one would hope. Definitely more than a by-the-numbers mainstream novel adaptation, there isn’t quite enough to put it with the year’s best.

[1] Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark with Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson in Walt Disney Pictures’ The Help.
[2] Emma Stone star as Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan in THE HELP.
[3] Social misfit Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, left) befriends her bemused housekeeper Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer, right), in DreamWorks Pictures’ inspiring drama, “The Help,” based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. “The Help” is written for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, with Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan producing. Ph: Dale Robinette. ©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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