Written and Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone (Skeeter), Viola Davis (Aibileen), Octavia Spencer (Minny), Bryce Dallas
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Date: August 10, 2011
Summary: 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.
Other Considerations: Some audiences may have a problem with the way in which racial issues are depicted-- with a bit of sugar coating. We all know that the lives of African Americans were a lot worse than anything this story comes close to touching. However, this is not a gritty drama about the stark reality of African American life during the 60s and it doesn’t claim to be. It is an idealized representation of what actually went on during that time period and presents the basic information in a way that most people can connect with. Sometimes we have to beautify the facts a bit in order to get our meaning across, since the harsh, ugly truth is often so hard to handle that people end up turning away from it, never sticking around to hear the rest of the message. This story may not be as true to life as it could be, but the heart of it is.
The Final Wrap: This movie effortlessly stirred up deep emotional issues (both good and bad) and brought you to tears without ever being melodramatic. A well developed storyline instilled each scene with “life” and always served to move the story forward. The realistic, fleshed out characters were portrayed by gifted actresses who drew the audience in and allowed them to experience joy and sorrow along with them.
For what it is, the movie was near perfect and is sure to become a beloved film that people will want to experience again and again.