It’s rare that I watch a film and want to hurt the cast but I deeply disliked about 60% of the characters in The Help and wanted to punch about 20% of them in the face. The Oscar winning 2011 film tells the story of disenfranchised maids living in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) returns from college with the world at her feet but realises that her family and friends expect very specific things of her. She is to act and dress in a certain way, not think too hard and settle down with a husband as soon as possible. Skeeter goes against what is expected and gets a job at the local paper. Desperate for something worthwhile to write about she asks her friend’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) if she can write about life from the help’s perspective. Although weary at first, Aibileen soon opens up to Skeeter and soon fellow maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is telling her story too.
I never saw The Help on its initial release and is in fact a rare example of a recent Best Picture candidate I’ve missed. Something about the movie didn’t appeal to me and my early hatred of the bad guy characters coupled with finding Emma Stone’s character annoying got me off to a bad start. By the end though I was wishing the film wouldn’t end and would have watched another act. I grew to respect and love certain characters but still want to punch others and the story is a remarkable example of bravery, courage and setting right what is wrong.
I’ve never been to Jackson, Mississippi, I wasn’t alive in the 1960s and I’m glad of both these facts. Although Jackson is used in place of the whole South it comes across as such a despicable place, full of vile people. The character writing is very strong but there is little development or revelation. People are painted as good or bad very early on and bar one character, that’s the way it stays. I always find it shocking when I watch the likes of this, Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, The Hurricane etc to realise that the stories are based on events which took place within my grandparents and sometimes parent’s lives. It’s sickening to be honest that at the same time The Beatles were storming America, Americans were forced to use separate toilets, books, taxis and hospitals because of the colour of their skin. It makes me so angry that things developed that way and luckily films like The Help bring out the anger in me. (Hence the wishing to punch Bryce Dallas Howard and co).
Putting my anger at our shameful and ridiculous past to one side, The Help is a well made film which features some top performances. Three of the cast received Oscar nominations and Octavia Spencer won an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for her role as the downtrodden but sassy Minny. Her awards are well and truly justified but her wins perhaps overshadowed the other actors. I thought that Jessica Chastain was brilliant as one of the few nice white characters and thoroughly deserved her nomination. Viola Davis caries much of the film and is also very, very good. Even Bryce Dallas Howard is good and she must have done something right given my hatred for her character. Against the larger personalities and great performances Emma Stone fades into the background a little but does nothing to upset the great acting. Allison Janney is also very good.
The period design is great and the costumes look authentic. The look isn’t as important as the subject matter but it is superb. A lot of the time the design is used to show the differences between characters. For instance all of the white women share very similar hairstyles except for Skeeter. This separates her from the crowd but is a bit obvious for me. The differences in black and white houses and neighbourhoods are also striking. The Direction is unfussy and lets the script do the work. There is nothing flash on screen and the camera stays mostly still. This feels like the right choice.
The film isn’t all good. There is a lot of stereotyping and pretty much the only mention of black men is as wife beaters. For a film which appears to want to break down barriers, it’s depiction of black men isn’t exactly fair. Apart from the odd one or two, its depiction of white people isn’t much better. The movie glosses over several areas and doesn’t bite as hard as other films which have focussed on civil rights issues. The Help is a bit like a civil rights movie for people who read Grazia magazine rather than those who wish to get to the nub of the issue. Despite the flaws though, it gives a rare mainstream voice not only to a cast of women but black women. I can’t remember the last time that I saw a film with so many female characters in it or one that focussed on the story of black women. Overall The Help looks good, has a great story, fine performances and made me really angry. Everything above is a positive and I’m glad I saw it. I should have done in 2011.
- Director Tate Taylor and the source novel's author Kathryn Stockett were childhood friends.
- The character of Minny was based on Octavia Spencer and Spencer also provided the audiobook narration.
- Katy Perry was almost cast in Jessica Chatain's role but had to pull out due to scheduling conflicts. (Few)