The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) USA

Reviewed by Alex Canzano. Viewed at The Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, was adapted from the novel written by Kathryn Stockett in 2009, and takes place in Jackson, Mississippi- early 1960’s Civil Rights era. The film received four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress in a leading role for Viola Davis. The story begins with Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) who is interviewing her friend’s maid named Abilene Clark (Viola Davis) and asks her how many white babies she has raised- a lot. Then Skeeter asks Aibilene what it is like to raise a white child while her own child was at home being raised by someone else and that brings us into a flashback from Skeeter’s perspective at the very beginning of the story.

Skeeter is just returning home from the University of Mississipi where she earned a degree in journalism and moving back in to her family’s plantation while she looks for a job, which she eventually finds with the Jackson Journal writing for the Miss Myrna housekeeping column. She reunites with her life-long friends Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt at the bridge club to find that all her friends seem to be married with children or on their way to be. Right from the start it becomes apparent that Skeeter doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of her peers. She approaches Aibilene Clark, who works as a maid and nanny for the Leefolts, to ask if maybe she could help her with the housekeeping column. Aibilene is hesitant to agree and Skeeter picks up on the vibe that some people find it inappropriate for her to be conversing with “the help”.

From there, Skeeter witnesses the mistreatment and hostile remarks made by her friends that are directed towards Aibilene. That’s when she decides she is going to write a book from the maid’s point of view about what it is like to work for rich, southern, white families who are racist and abusive. Eventually Aibilene consents to share her stories and help Skeeter write her book, which then expands from Aibilene’s experience to the whole community of African-American housekeepers.

The Help features stunning performances from each of its cast members and especially Viola Davis who’s tragic but hopeful role as Aibilene Clark pulls tears and commiseration from her audience. One of the more memorably harrowing scenes is when she is forced to run miles to her home after being kicked off her bus when the driver hears on the radio that Medgar Evens, a Civil Rights activist, had been shot earlier that day in Jackson. Despite the serious content of the film, it is filled with humor and comical performances as well- most notably Octavia Spencer for her role as Minny Jackson who gets revenge on Hilly for being fired after using her toilet. Bryce Dallas Howard does a great job convincing the viewer that she is needlessly cruel and “a godless woman.” Emma Stone gives the best performance of her career as Skeeter.

The film might appear to be more directed towards a female audience considering there a virtually no significant male roles in the film but, as a man, I can honestly say the feature appealed to me just as much as it would to anyone—everyone.

 

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