August 12, 2011
By Marc Glassman
Tate Taylor, director and script based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel
Starring: Emma Stone (Skeeter Phelan), Viola Davis (Abilene Clark), Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly Holbrook), Octavia Spencer (Minny Jackson), Allison Janney (Charlotte Phelan), Jessica Chastain (Celia Foote), Sissy Spacek (Hilly’s mom), Cicely Tyson (Constatine Bates), Mary Steenburgen (Elaine Stein)
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way immediately: old-fashioned genres in movies aren’t necessarily boring and looking back at the political past of the United States–or many other countries–can be quite unsettling. The Help, Tate Taylor’s directorial debut based on his friend Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel combines elements from melodrama–alcoholism, illicit romance and family secrets—with an earnest look at racism to create a film that despite its difficult subject, should appeal to a wide audience. Supported by a great cast of African-American and Caucasian women, Stockett and Taylor’s film and book evoke a potent era and place in America, the deep South in the early Sixties.
The Civil Rights movement was at its height in 1962 and ’63, the years when lively young Skeeter Phelan (a feisty and charming Emma Stone) decides to boost her literary aspirations by writing a “tell-all” book about the “help,” the black women who regularly acted as surrogate mothers, cleaners and cooks to the South’s middle and upper-class White majority. Unlike her Jackson, Mississippi friends led by young society Queen Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard in a scene stealing and daring performance), Skeeter quietly questions the deep-seated conservatism, racism and sexism that has kept the South tethered to the past since the end of the Civil War. She actually works at a job, as a household advice columnist at the local newspaper, and isn’t married.
Skeeter thinks there’s something wrong with the way her friends and their mothers (and grandmothers) treat the black women who spend their lives caring for them. Hilly is particularly adamant about toilets: she’s appalled that black women might use the same ones as her even in the homes that they inhabit for at least eight hours a day.
The intrepid Skeeter forces her comradeship on the most lively of the black servants, Abilene (a brilliant Viola Davis in a likely Oscar nominated performance) and Minny (a flashy, angry and tragic role brought to life by Octavia Spencer). Slowly, they agree to tell their stories—and bring other friends into Skeeter’s project.
Taylor and Stockett make it clear that the black women are fearful for good reasons. Footage is shown of Medgar Evers, the heroic civil rights leader who was killed by white supremacists during the summer of ’63. Later in the film, we see John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession after the President was assassinated in Dallas. These were not good or easy times to be promoting civil rights in America though Sam Cooke’s prescient ballad “A change is a’gonna come” was soon to take place.
Too much of The Help is wrapped up in sub-plots around Skeeter’s meandering romance with an eventually inappropriate young man. The core of the film resides in the issue of racism and the central scene between Hilly and her ex-servant Minny takes place too soon, at around the three-quarter mark of the film. The film suffers from the fate of too many adaptations from complicated books: there are a lot of characters and incidents that Tate Taylor clearly felt the need to cover in order to do justice to the novel. Still, despite the flaws, The Help is well worth seeing–especially for Howard and Davis’ performances.