Based on the best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett (find my review of the book here), The Help is a drama about three Southern American women in their struggle for racial equality in Jackson, Mississippi.
Emma Stone stars as Eugena “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent college graduate going back home, who wants to break out of the mold society has limited her in. She’s an aspiring writer who happens to live during the era of Civil Rights Movements. Viola Davis stars as Aibileen, a maid working for a Mrs. Elizabeth, her main job being taking care of Elizabeth’s little girl, Mae Mobley, whose mother doesn’t care about. Octavia Spencer stars as Minnie, a snarky maid who literally can’t keep her mouth shut but whose cooking is so superb that her white employers tend to turn a blind eye to her blabbing.
After a proposal by Skeeter’s friend, Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), to have separate bathrooms for the colored help, the idea in Skeeter’s mind of the necessity of change begins to blossom, especially after it gets fueled by an enthusiastic New York publisher who wants her to write. So Skeeter sets to write a story about the help in Jackson. Her first two maids to go on board? Minnie and Aibileen, who will tell Skeeter their deepest and darkest stories – stories they’ve hidden for such a long time they’ve become permanent scars in their souls. Aibileen tells her about all the little kids she raised, about how Elizabeth is an unfit mother, about how she doesn’t treat Mae Mobley like a real mother should. Minnie, who also happens to be Miss Hilly’s former maid, tells Skeeter about the “horrible awful thing” she did, which involves a special ingredient in a pie, to which you will have heartfelt laughs. But it is their struggle as a community that will bring the other maids on board – the chance to tell their side of the story, to be liberated – at least on paper – and to somehow seek salvation.
The performances in the movie are top notch. Starting with Emma Stone, she is one of our generation’s most promising actresses. After a great performance in Easy A and being the best of the actors in Crazy Stupid Love, she is back here not to steal the show but to offer an emotionally subtle performance that is exactly how the character she portrays is: not flamboyant but calm and reserved. Stone’s most emotional scenes come when she remembers her maid Constantine and discovers the story of how Constantine left them and it is in those scenes that she truly shines.
Viola Davis’ performance is being touted by critics everywhere as a tour de force performance. And it truly is. There’s one scene in particular, when she tells the story of how her son dies, where she plays on your emotional strings like a banjo in a country song. But her performance throughout is always nuanced, always great and always emotive. Probably the movie’s highlight scene, its ending, is purely her work. Davis is truly captivating. Whenever she focuses her eyes on another character in The Help, you almost see her gaze into that character’s soul. She is penetrating, invasive… and you welcome it with open arms.
Octavia Spencer is equally great as Minnie. She brings humor to the movie. It may be dark humor sometimes – literally – but it will still get you to feel happy that even amid all the horrible things these people had to go through, there’s still room for happiness in their lives. She gives hope to the other characters in the book and to you, as a viewer, that there could be a better tomorrow for them. She portrays Minnie’s strength subtly. She comes with a bruised eye to work and acts as if this wasn’t caused by her alcoholic husband. But deep down, below the strong outside of Spencer’s character, you can feel the volcano of hurt waiting to erupt.
The movie’s director, Tate Taylor, is Kathryn Stockett’s best friend since childhood. This deep understanding between such two friends has helped him bring her book to screen while entirely preserving the message she was trying to get across on page. While there are many differences between book and movie, some of which I had wished to be included in the movie, the screenplay Taylor wrote still works as a great adaptation, one of the better ones for a book to movie adaptation.
The Help is also a stunning movie visually. And even though there’s obviously no visual effect work here, this means recognition should be given to the cinematography crew that worked on it, most notably Stephen Goldblatt, whose previous works include Julie & Julia, Charlie Wilson’s War. etc…
If there’s anything to take out of The Help it’s that everyone is a victim – even those white socialite women. Yes, they are the victim of their ignorance, of their repressed memories of the black women that brought them up. The black women are victims of being at the wrong time. The little white girls are victims of negligent mothers.
At the end of the day, The Help can be summed up by its most emotional scene, which also happens to be its conclusion. As Aibileen leaves the house of her employer, Elizabeth, she sits by Mae Mobley and asks her to repeat what Aibileen has been teaching her every day. Mae Mobley stares into Aibileen’s deep, dark eyes and repeats: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”