The Help. Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain. Directed by Tate Taylor. 146 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes).
It’s not quite accurate to say that one will enjoy The Help. Actually, one might be squirming in one’s seat at times – for the right reasons. This is a film about American racism, as late as 1967. Some of the sequences are so effective in displaying how seemingly well brought up young woman can be so patronising, condescending and unjust to their maids, ‘the help’.
Box-office has been high for The Help. It is one of those movies that you realise taps into the wide audience sensibility, that the characters are humane enough for audiences to identify with them, and that the issues are important enough to be concerned about. It’s the type of film that turns up with Oscar nominations (a bit like the response to The King’s Speech), that people vote for, able to overlook some of the stereotyping or other limitations that critics point out, because they liked the film so much and were moved.
The film is an adaptation of a popular novel by a white writer, Kathryn Stockett. The central character of The Help is a hopeful white writer, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, played with sunny confidence and concern by Emma Stone who has shown she is a talented performer in comedies and does very well here, especially in challenging presuppositions about race and the help. But, it is the black women who are at the core of the story, the maids whose ancestors were slaves, whose mothers and grandmothers were slaves in the southern states like Mississippi, which is the location for this story.
Viola Davis has shown great versatility in her roles (a police chief in Law Abiding Citizen, an upset mother in Doubt). She holds this film together with her rich interpretation of Aibeleen, telling her story, patient with hardships, at home with poverty and a son who returned from Vietnam damaged, but spending her days in the homes of the rich, bringing affection to their often neglected children. Then there is Octavia Spencer as the large, amiable but more often irascible, Minny, who perpetrates a literally distasteful trick on the haughtiest of the young mothers in the town. They show different faces of human dignity while locked in a society that still deems them inferior – and thinks it is doing them a favour by building a separated toilet for their use at work (because they have stupid presuppositions about health, hygiene, in different races).
Skeeter persuades Aibileen to tell her story as well as Minny who is initially reluctant. Aibileen writes down her story and, eventually, the other maids tell theirs. Skeeter has a New York publisher connection (Mary Steenburgen) and the stories are published as The Help. There are many enjoyably prickly scenes as the locals read the book – and react.
Bryce Dallas Howard must be particularly good as the ringleader of the well-dressed and ‘progressive’ wives because we cannot help loathing her. By contrast, Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) is also effective as the ‘trailer-trash’ wife whom the others despise. For bonus, Allison Janney is Skeeter’s mother who has a sad and bigoted story of her own which concerns her former maid, played by veteran Cicely Tyson. And Sissy Spacek is there too as Bryce Dallas Howard’s mother who is losing it in the battle against dementia.
This is a film where men take a back seat, either pleasantly supportive husbands, or pleasant young men who suddenly show that they are tarred with the same bigoted brush as the young women.
Perhaps many of the characters are stereotypes of southerners of that era, even acting occasionally in caricature fashion. While that may be a limitation on The Help as a work of cinema art, the film works very well in dramatising issues from the past which need to be remembered and repented of, a warning that racism is often virulent just under the surface.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 1st September 2012.