An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids’ point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.
Year 2, Film #55
THE REVIEW: Most of the time whenever I watch a film that’s adapted from a book, as is the case with The Help, I mention how I haven’t read the book and therefore can’t comment on how well the adaptation works. However, in this case, I don’t think it matters that much that I haven’t read the book because the film The Help is more about Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) — Kathryn Stockett in real life — and her process of gathering stories from maids in Jackson, Mississippi and writing them all down. The Help touches upon many controversial civil rights topics and delivers an engaging and moving story about “the help”, but at the same time, it feels held back from its true potential.
One of the film’s biggest assets is its stellar cast which nabbed a total of three acting nominations (including one win) at the 84th Academy Awards. While grouping the characters may seem antithetical to the point of the film, it’s the easiest way to talk about the ensemble without having to go through each performance. The three main groups I identified are: the nice white people, the racist white people, and the help. The nice white people are few and far between but include Skeeter and Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) among a few others. Skeeter is very much determined to change things in Jackson because she’s fed up with the way the blacks are treated. Being raised by a black maid whom she idolized, Skeeter is very fond towards them all and shows everyone a courtesy that the racist white people lack.
The racist white people are quite numerous but center around Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), and Jolene French (Anna Camp). These three well-to-do, uptight, and careless individuals are the epitome of selfish and annoying and their actresses portray that to perfection. For comparisons sake, think Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter but in 1960s segregated America. Everything about these characters makes you want to hate them and that’s exactly what the film makes you do. These three are the “villains” so to speak and they provide a nice rallying point to direct all your hatred towards, and in the end, a source that ends up providing satisfaction in a way.
The last group is the help, or the black maids who serve the white folk, and is exemplified in the main two characters, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). In many ways it’s through these two that the film lives and dies. While on the surface it’s about Skeeter trying to write her book, she’s getting all the stories from Aibileen and Minny and the other help they’re able to recruit. And in stark contrast to the racist whites, the help are the kindest, sweetest, and most loving people you could ever meet. Even with their harsh treatment, they continue doing their jobs and find their own joy from it. Aibileen in particular who cares for Elizabeth’s little daughter, forms a special loving bond that at one point is tested to its limit and is heartbreaking to watch.
Acting and the characters are a major part of The Help and is the most interesting part to watch. But the plot of the film inherently plays a major part as well and it’s here where the film loses a bit. It’s not so much an issue of the story that is told, but the story that isn’t told. The story that is told is Skeeter writing her book which is done in a thoughtful and enlightening way. But the story that isn’t told is what 1960s segregated Mississippi was really like. For the film to focus on that as it’s primary story, The Help would have been a different movie, but it’s important to at least acknowledge what’s going around these characters. Aibileen and Minny aren’t living in a vacuum; their actions have consequences and the actions of those around them have consequences on them too. A few times there are mentions of the outside world including the assassination of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, and the KKK. But all of these examples are only briefly touched upon in the film and aren’t dwelt on long enough to provide a lasting impact that is needed. The Help doesn’t need to focus on these issues — doing so would shift the entire tone and purpose of the film — but in order to be a great film, some sort of context needs to be provided so we can better understand what Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny, and everyone else is going through.
The Help is populated with a group of amazing actors who do a great job telling a story that is very impactful and moving. It’s not so much about the stories that are being told and written down in Skeeter’s book, but about how those stories came to be and what the significance of writing The Help means. The film lacks a bit of necessary context to provide us with a sense of the environment these characters are living in but besides that, The Help is a wonderful film that was a joy to watch. I would say it was very deserving of its Best Picture nomination and win for Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress. I’ll leave you with the advice of Aibileen who would remind you that, “You is kind, you is smart, and you is important.”
THE RATING: 4 out of 5