Distributed by: DreamWorks Pictures
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
In the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, but one wouldn’t know it in Jackson, Mississippi. Here, the white aristocracy still reigns over the blacks, who are no longer slaves in theory, but are enslaved by the Jim Crow laws still in place. Their positions in society are mostly defined through servitude - cleaning homes, raising their employers' children, cooking. For the most part, their employers - at times, just another version of hard-driving masters - believe that “the help” are to be seen and not heard. But for Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, daughter of a plantation owner, “the help” are as important to her as her own family and she has decided that they need a voice.
Based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help stars Emma Stone as Skeeter Phelan, a young aspiring writer who has returned from college to find that the woman who raised her, Constantine Bates (Cicely Tyson), is gone. Although her family insists that she left to be with her own children, their evasiveness has Skeeter wondering whether she was not fired. Her indignation at the idea that someone as faithful and loving as Constantine could be treated in this way causes Skeeter to take notice of the goings on in the town she once called home.
As she notes the “Colored Only” signs around her and listens as the people she once called friends treat their black workers as if they were property, Skeeter comes up with a plan. Skeeter wants to write a book and she believes that the world needs to hear the stories of these women who work so hard for their employers only to endure low wages, harsh treatment and discrimination because of their color. Why not write a book written in the perspective of "the help"?
She enlists the aid of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged black woman who has spent her whole life raising the children of white families. Although she puts her all into raising these children to be respectful and to believe in themselves, once they grow older, they treat her just like the rest of society. She is reluctant to speak with Skeeter about her experiences until her employer is persuaded that it might not be sanitary for Aibileen to use the same bathrooms as the family and their guests. It is this segregated bathroom and its implications that decide Aibileen.
But she is only one voice and if Skeeter is to sell this book to a New York editor, she will need more voices. Aibileen and Skeeter persuade Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) to join their project. Minny is known for her sass and outspokenness, but her mastery of cooking usually can get her by. Unfortunately, her employer is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a spoiled, racist aristocrat who oversteps her bounds by attempting to force Minny to use an outdoor bathroom in the middle of a tornado. When she is fired, she finds employment at Hilly’s arch nemesis’ home and learns what it can be like to work for a kind employer who respects Minny as a woman, treating her less as “the help” and more as a person.
As Skeeter gathers more and more stories from “the help”, changing their names to protect them, she not only learns the strength of these women but begins to feel a kinship towards them. But will she be able to finish the book in the limited time the New York editor has given her…and even if she does, will it sell?
The Help is an amazing film that allows its viewers a glimpse into the lives of “the help” in Mississippi during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. These people, often times the most important part of a Southern household, were treated as second class citizens, not only by the various citizens of Mississippi, but by the very people they were employed by. Imagine raising a child as if it were one of your own, teaching it right from wrong and how to believe in his or herself, only to have that child become your employer some day and treat you as if you were beneath them simply because of your race.
The reason that The Help is such a powerful movie is not simply because of its subject matter. The movie attracts its viewers with powerful dramatic scenes, shocking moments, segments where you will definitely need tissues and laughter that will have you doubled over streaming tears from your eyes. It is this perfect blend of drama and laughter that helps to captivate the audience and get the movie’s point across.
The casting for The Help was incredible and the actors not only made the characters believable, but turned them into people the audience could relate to and cheer on or jeer at. Emma Stone was excellent as Skeeter, but this movie belonged to Viola Davis and her portrayal of Aibileen Clark, a woman who found strength in telling her story…strength enough to move forward and tell the stories of others, something virtually unheard of at the time. Octavia Spencer was hysterical as the outspoken Minny - with her style and facial expressions, she kept me in stitches throughout the entire movie. Bryce Dallas Howard is downright despicable in her role as Hilly Holbrook. Her snide comments and evil actions make you just want to reach into the screen and slap her - job well done.
Other notable performances include Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s mother, Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, pariah of the neighborhood, Allison Janey as Skeeter’s mother and Cicely Tyson as Constantine Bates, Skeeter’s former nanny. Which brings me to the funniest scene in the whole movie. You may remember that famous scene in Fried Green Tomatoes when Cicely Tyson as Sipsey is asked why the barbecue tasted so good. “Secret’s in the sauce,” she said, although we all knew the real reason. Well, in this movie, the subject is one of Minny’s pies. If I told you why, the secret would be out and the scenes alluding to it not as funny. You’ll just have to see the movie for yourself to find out.
At a little over two hours in length, The Help is an excellent look at the south of the 1960’s and its attitude towards people of color. Despite the harshness of these scenes, there is enough laughter and inspiration to make The Help a truly uplifting film. As the main characters grow in their friendship, so does their confidence and belief in their project. They become ready to take on the world, showing the viewers that anything is possible through faith. The Help is definitely a movie worth seeing and one I plan on owning as soon as the DVD hit’s the stores.