The Help celebrates small victories against racism
It’s hard to resist seeing a movie surrounded by controversy; curiosity is even greater when the movie is based on an internationally best-selling book. Such is Kathrynn Stockett’s The Help, adapted for screen by her childhood friend Tate Taylor and featuring Emma Stone (Easy A), Broadway actress Viola Davis, and Bryce Dallas Howard (The Twilight Saga). Though The Help was harshly criticized for its occasionally unflattering portrayal of hired help, it opened to good reviews and critics recognized that at the heart of the movie is a story powerful enough to leave its mark on the global box office — a $125 million mark, to be exact.
The film follows liberal Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) on her journey to uncover the secrets of white Jackson, Miss. households during the segregated civil rights era. She is one of the South’s few college-educated women, and is an aspiring journalist trying to prove her potential to male employers while fitting in among the traditional world of women. Her daring collection of the local maids’ raw revelations send Southern society into a panic after their harsh prejudices are exposed and published for the world to judge. As a result, Skeeter’s risky collection of stories threatens the safety of her family, the hired help, and a deeply flawed way of thinking during a time of social and political unrest.
The Help is structured around Aibileen’s (Viola Davis) point of view as she and her coworkers privately disclose their stories of pain, joy, and survival as second class citizens. Aibileen is a compassionate maid who supports and nannies neglected children, steering the film clear of a bitter and unpleasant narrative, while the supporting cast balances moments of heavy reflection with sophisticated comic relief. Standout stars are Octavia Spencer as Minnie, the sassy, no-nonsense “help” on a quest for revenge on her old mistress Hilly Holbrook (Dallas-Howard), and Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, the ditzy and naïve housewife isolated from southern high society by a feud of the past. Hilly is quickly identified as the demanding debutante with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and condescending gaze, who is duly rewarded by the clever Minnie in an act that is forever referred to as “The Terrible Awful” (and it is terrible).
Despite the film’s positive reception, some audiences are offended by the message The Help sends. Organizations and boycott petitions criticize the movie for perpetuating a long-standing Hollywood tradition of casting actors of color in servile roles opposite heroic, good-natured whites. While it is true that The Help blatantly uses this dynamic to its advantage, it does not glorify the mentality of the South. The film treats each character with a measure of integrity and the general tone is disapproving of corrupt actions (while celebrating charitable ones — nod to a wonderful scene involving Hilly’s mother). The Help may not be the most pleasant reminder of America’s past, but it does its best to not alienate one group or audience with its sensitive depiction of racial relationships. Hopefully the film’s global success will draw attention to Hollywood’s internal issues that deserve to be addressed by executives and audiences alike.
There are scenes worth applauding for their brilliant performances and tragic moments of loss and despair. Both sides of the social strata are given fair insight and attention in complex situations. Real civil rights events like the assassination of Medgar Evans are touched upon carefully to keep the story in context while showing their struggle on a larger scale. Overall, The Help is a decent attempt at a racially conscious film that explores American history and appreciates the small victories that resulted in the revolution of a nation.