Romy Shiller

‘The Help’: Or, ‘O Mother, Where Art Thou?’

In Film, review on September 6, 2011 at 10:13 am


A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. I’ve even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he’ll endorse the idea.”

Hilly Holbrook (Pg 9, The Help)

Director:  Tate Taylor.

Writers: Tate Taylor (screenplay), Kathryn Stockett (novel).

Stars:  Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard.

I really hope you see this film. I know that it isn’t released in the UK until October 28th but it is worth it. Race-relations films are extremely necessary and important. They break my heart. To debase someone because of their skin colour (or sexual preference or class or gender…) is abhorrent to me. While artificial and imposed inequality makes me very sad, I will usually find the strength to oppose what I feel is prejudice. We can watch metaphorical films like X-Men but seeing a slice of life can be overwhelming. I re-watched Brokeback Mountain (2005) soon after seeing The Help – well that was a mistake. Sadness on top of sadness.

This film does gloss over some issues but it also highlights certain problems which used to exist and certain attitudes which continue to this day. (The African-American  Civil Rights Movement refers to the movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against African Americans…)

Plot: A look at what happens when a southern town’s unspoken code of rules and behavior is shattered by three courageous women who strike up an unlikely friendship. 

Director, Tate Taylor says, “You just see evil white person, downtrodden abused black person, over and over and over. And African Americans are more sick of that portrayal than the whites are in our country. That’s what’s been really cool, people are saying this film is balanced: There’s bad white characters and there’s good white characters, and the same with the African-American characters.”

This film explores the lives of some women. It is not a chick-flick, it is a human-flick. It is very likely that Viola Davis will win an Oscar for her portrayal of Aibileen Clark. She says, “The Civil Rights Movement is almost a backdrop, but a strong one because it informs the relationships of these women, and yet they were able to overcome it because they had a common goal, which was this book. Through this task, what it created was a bond of commonality.”

Rob Goald, senior editor of Film Festival Today says, “The actors are pitch perfect!  Beginning with the emotion infused performance of Viola Davis (“Doubt”) who portrays the house keeper known as Aibileen Clark.  Aibileen is credited with raising 17 children from various white families while suffering the loss of her own child in an accidental death.  Her best friend is Minny Jackson (portrayed by the wonderful Octavia Spencer) who works for a tyrannical racist, Hilly Holbrook, given extra zest by Bryce Dallas Howard.  Minny is fired for defecating in a pie she served Holbrook which was lovingly labeled by the maids as the “Terrible Awful”.  Terminated and ostracized by the white upper crust, Minny must work for the inept and ditzy Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who brings the “Dumb Blond” jokes into this thoroughly entertaining tale with an unerring sense of humanity.”

Emma Stone plays Skeeter. “Her ability to convey vulnerability, intelligence and naivete is what landed actress Emma Stone the coveted role of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan in the big screen adaptation of the best-selling novel, The Help.”

Skeeter has ties to the white women who debase their maids (who usually raised them) but is determined to write from the perspective of the maids. She is a strong, courageous and unconventional person. She is by far the most awesome white person in the film. She gives a voice to the hidden women whose experience is made invisible. She loses a lot because of her commitment to justice but I imagine that her integrity is much greater to her than any loss.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays the racist Hilly Holbrook and says that, “it’s fun to play a bitch. There’s a lot of freedom when you’re playing a character like that. You don’t need to worry about being likeable or appealing or anything like that. I really, really, really enjoyed playing this character, and there were some tough things about her as well. It’s not like you’re playing some fantasy bad girl. She’s a genuinely evil person. It was like nothing that I had ever had the chance to do before. I’ve played a vampire (in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), but that’s more of a mythological character.”

Taylor does a good job with racial issues that have been tackled before but many people are unaware of certain details that led up to the American Civil Rights Movement and there is a compelling dynamic and intriguing story here: “In the novel, Skeeter’s anonymously published expose is simply called “Help” — a clever play on words that suggests a cry for change from segregated second-class citizens desperate for their voices to be heard. The film [is] adapted with the sure hand of a seasoned pro by Stockett’s longtime friend Tate Taylor…”

I understand the quest to validate difference very well. In my book Again I write;

Personally, I truly believe that standing up for oneself has great value. Putting oneself in harm’s way because of a decision to manifest integrity can, and often is, a real possibility. I believe the alternative is worse. Challenging dominant ideas is fraught with danger. It might just be easier to surrender, to be defeated, but where is the fun in that? The decision to own power is, well, powerful. I keep thinking of Rosa Parks: “…an unknown seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This brave woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance, but her lonely act of defiance began a movement that ended legal segregation in America, and made her an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere.” Power, inspiration and possibility: Incredible. (pp. 13-14)

The Help is a very good film – acting, directing, editing…wonderful! The historical elements are icing on the cake but the cake itself is delicious. It would be a shame, though, to untangle the story from the filmic elements. It all blends together well.

A review I read says, “A stirring black-empowerment tale aimed squarely at white audiences, The Help personalizes the Civil Rights Movement through the testimony of domestic servants working in Jackson, Mississippi , circa 1963. But more than that, it serves as an enlightening and deeply affecting exercise in empathy for those who’ve never considered what life must have been like for African-Americans living with inequality a full century after the Emancipation Proclamation called an end to slavery.”

I hope the film translates overseas.

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