The Help is a story about a story, and a few womens’ courage to speak up. Set in the 1960’s in Jackson Mississippi, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Scott’s book considers the Civil Rights movement from a less sensational perspective than usual for Hollywood. In the past it’s been the shocking stories from that time that made the big screen; the violence, the protests, the large scale marches, the acts of rebellion. The beauty of The Help is its approach from a smaller, more personalised angle, where passive aggression is far more prevalent and disturbing than any outward displays of violence.
When Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) returns from Ole Miss University she decides to write a book considering the point of view of black maids who work for white families. Teaming up with Aibleen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), two maids who have spent their lives raising white children, Skeeter sets about exposing the stories from behind the Southern white doors.
What follows is a poignant portrayal of female empowerment and determination to make life better. When Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) goes on a mission to implement a new law stating that the maids have to have a toilet of their own because ‘they carry different diseases than we do’, you can’t help but cringe at the ignorance. Of course when Hilly gets what’s coming to her later, you’ll find yourself cringing for a much funnier reason. That’s something The Help does particularly well; it’ll have you crying at the injustice one minute, and laughing at some one-liners the next.
The Help has been generating a lot of Oscar buzz, and this has to be down to the performances. Stone is endearing and believable as the young aspiring author who steps away from her friends’ world of judgement and card playing, in order to make a change for the better. Davis as Aibleen, the narrator of the film as well as Skeeter’s original source of information, is perhaps the most moving character of them all. Her words of wisdom to a little girl, ‘You is kind. You is smart. You is important’ will have you tearing up more than once. And Spencer as Minny Jackson is a much needed injection of humour. Her devotion to fried chicken (‘fried chicken just tend to make you feel better about life’), her general attitude that makes reference to Mammy stereotypes of earlier films, and most famously her revenge on Hilly Hillbrook all keep us laughing merrily, enjoying the light relief from an otherwise heavy topic. Also worth noting is Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote; a ditsy but loveable blonde if ever there was one.
The Help could be criticised for being over-sentimentalised and over-simplified in parts, but then it wouldn’t be Hollywood if it wasn’t over-something. It’s a heart-warming story that both restores and condemns your faith in humanity, makes you laugh and makes you cry, and ultimately has you leaving the cinema with a hopeful smile on your face. The Civil Rights movement is an affecting topic, and The Help did it justice; perhaps there were no sit-ins, no protests and no marches but there was a book, and for the maids of Jackson Mississippi it was a few pages in the right direction.
Best bit: Minny’s revenge…
Best line: ‘Love and hate are two horns on the same goat, Eugenia. And you need a goat’.
Best performances: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain.
Director Tate Taylor and author of the book Kathryn Stockett were childhood friends and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi where the film is based.