Sunday, August 14, 2011

Movie Review: The Help

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Well I must say, The Help turned out to be much more than I thought based on the trailer. I was expecting more of a comedy about a group of black women working for white families during the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi telling the follies of their experiences for the audience to laugh at. It was directed and the screenplay written by Tate Taylor based on Kathryn Stockett's novel, it was a much more poignant look at race relations at this time and place in American history than I had expected. There were scenes that did make you laugh, but there were more scenes that had I been looking at the audience instead of the movie screen I'm sure I would have seen faces of confusion, bewilderment and anger concerning the treatment of the black women who devoted themselves to these families.

The Help Movie Poster
The story is told from the point of view of Aibileen (Viola Davis), a women who doesn't know how to do anything else. Her mother was a maid and her grand mother was a house slave. She's more of a mother to the children in the households she serves than the women who are more concerned about their social standing and appearance in the community. Her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) works for the queen bee of the social circle, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who professes "separate but equal" with a proposal that homes with black maids must provide them with a separate bathroom.

Returning to Jackson after graduating with a degree in Journalism from Ole Miss is Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone) who goes by Skeeter. With a name like Eugenia, you'd probably want a cool nick name like Skeeter too, wouldn't you? Skeeter secures a job with the local paper writing a column about cleaning tips and who better to provide accurate and useful information than a maid. That's how Skeeter and Aibileen get to know each other. But Skeeter wants to be a novelist. She decides after seeing how Aibileen and Minny are treated to write a novel about these black women raising white children from the maids point of view.

It's during these observations that the connections between this group of women and their charges is exposed for what is it. Aibileen proudly states that she's raised seventeen children. These strong black women are taking care of the children in ways that their own parents aren't doing. Even with Skeeter, when she returns home she asks for Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the maid who raised her. When she finds out that Constantine is no longer there, she is heart broken and angry.

The dynamic of this complex relationship is the heart of the film. Mothers abdicating their parental role to other women who are considered help and not worthy of using the bathrooms in their employer's house and yet being charged with one of the most important duties and responsibilities of rearing a healthy and responsible human being. Stockett herself was a product of being raised by a black housekeeper while her own mother was largely absent. Words of affirmation like "You are beautiful. You are smart. You are important." played an important part in Stockett's life and echoed in Aibileen's narrative to those she cared for.

Davis does a wonderful job as the bitter Aibileen, as does Spencer as the smart mouthed help Minny. But it's Stone's performance which acts as the glue to pull together and chronicle the stories of these maids and their bosses from the disgust of her own mother's attitudes and actions to the unlikely friendship between Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. A story Skeeter felt demanded to be told against the risk of going up against her own social class and the Jim Crow laws while Medgar Evers and President Kennedy ended up being assassinated. Each of the women are strong individuals to do what they did during the time they were in against confusing and hypocritical standards in place in society.

The 137 minute film goes by quickly and is rated PG-13 for thematic material. There were a few swears and smoking. Lots and lots of smoking. They even managed to poke fun at the smoking. The period piece looks beautiful and the story combined with the acting was enough that not only were there times of laughter, but times when you could hear people sniffling and blowing noses in the theater. Having a few tissues on hand couldn't hurt while you watch The Help.

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