I try to avoid other opinions of a movie until I have seen it myself, but it is much harder to avoid the advertisements. By just glancing at commercials and posters for The Help, I got the idea that it would be a slightly quirky film about women, for women with some laughs and a lesson about racism. When I finally saw it, I was shocked at what a great movie it was. The drama and issues brought up were a lot heavier than that yellow poster can let on.
The film is set in Jackson Mississippi in the 1960s. When Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer, returns home from college, she notices more and more tension between white women and their black hired help. She can tell that her ill mother (Allison Janney) is lying about their old maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised Skeeter. The girls she grew up with are all now married with their own help and finding new ways to deal with “the colored situation.” Not realizing the full danger at first, Skeeter tries to recruit the black maids to provide testimonials about what it is like to work for these white women. As Skeeter gets deeper into writing the book, racial tensions rise across Jackson, and the country.
The strongest things in this film are the acting, variety of full bodied characters and how they fit together. Viola Davis provides a strong lead as Aibileen. As an older woman, who has raised many white children, but hardly had time for her only son, now dead, she has become bitter. That bitterness and loss helps her find the strength to tell her story to Skeeter. Viola’s best friend is Minny (Octavia Spencer), a bold maid whose sassy mouth and defiant attitude gets her fired by Hilly Holbrook. Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the queen bee of the white young women in Jackson. What Hilly does, the rest do, which includes adding new outside toilets for the help, believing in racist propaganda about disease carried by black people, and shunning Celia Foote. Celia (Jessica Chastain) is a sweet, ditzie young woman who lives outside of Jackson, whom all the white women think is white trash. When she hires Minny as her first maid, boundaries are broken and big secrets are revealed.
There is a funny thing I have noticed about The Help, that I am not sure if it hinders or hurts the main idea about how real racism was within homes in the 1960s. When characters like Hilly talk about ideas that the audience knows are backwards and outwardly racist, we tend to laugh at how absurd these women sound. Thing is, Hilly is completely serious about “the colored situation” and other ignorant ideas. To some degree I feel like she is being a comic character, a bit like George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove. When she says, “They carry different diseases than we do. That’s why I’ve drafted the Home Health Sanitation Initiative.” we could compare it to when Scott says, “Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!” On some level, that works fine since we are in a future perspective where her traits are laughable. We clearly hear something that can be funny, but other characters in the film may not. And later, some of the things that happen to Hilly are outright hilarious, so much so that I do not want to spoil the fun. While we see Hilly as comical, she is still an obvious threat to our heroines. Laughing at a villain can be a dangerous thing to do in film.
The Help is nominated for four Oscars. Of those, three of them are well deserved acting nominations for Viola Davis for Lead Actress, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain for Supporting Actress. The other is for Best Picture.
I have seen The Help twice, simply because I enjoyed it so much the first time I knew I needed to see it again. All the acting is wonderful, the whole cast creates a great ensemble. While this is mainly a drama focusing on heavy racial issues from a perspective many of us may not have considered before, there are some wildly funny moments that help lighten the whole film. And in the end, it feels like an inspiring film full of bravery and a heart of gold, without getting at all sappy.
“Minny don’t burn fried chicken.”
If the Academy wants to award a film with a perfect blend of drama, laughs and uplifting revolution, The Help will win the Oscar for Best Picture.