Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Tate Taylor
Stars: Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Alison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen.
There is already plenty of early Oscar buzz for this moving, poignant, powerful and impressive drama about racism in America in the 1960s. The Help is based on the best selling novel written by Kathryn Stockett, who drew upon her own experiences to shape this very humanistic and moving tale. The Help deals with some important themes, and is the type of book that would normally be promoted heavily by Oprah through her book club. And there is an Oprah connection, as one of the producers is talk show host Nate Berkus, who is one of her acolytes. Other producers include Chris Columbus, best known for the Home Alone movies and the first two Harry Potter films. This lavish and provocative production is one of the best things he has been involved in his career.
The Help is set in Mississippi in the 1960’s, a time when civil rights movement was gathering momentum. In the town of Jackson, African-American women were employed as maids in the homes of the wealthy, prominent white families. These women spent more time raising other people’s children than their own, and were often more of a surrogate mother to their charges. But they were still treated shamefully – forbidden to use the toilet facilities inside the houses, forced to take separate busses to and from work. And their employment could be terminated at the whim of a petty boss.
The accepted social order is challenged when Skeeter Phelan (the always excellent Emma Stone) returns home from college and lands a job at the local newspaper. She is hired to write a domestic help column, and seeks advice from family friend and maid Aibileen (Viola Davis). But Skeeter also witnesses how Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Aibileen’s mean-spirited, resentful and bigoted social climbing employer treats her. Skeeter decides to write about the racist attitudes of her hometown from the perspective of the down trodden and mistreated maids.
She convinces Aibileen to tell her story for a book that she is writing, and this empowers her to speak out about the entrenched racism, which immediately puts her at odds with her former school friends, who have become cruel and hateful. Eventually Aibileen is able to convince a number of other maids to come forth with their own stories of injustice and the shabby treatment dished out to them. But Skeeter also witnesses some shameful racism closer to home when she confronts her ailing mother (Alison Janney) about the disappearance of the family maid and close friend Constantine (a moving Cicely Tyson, who appears in flashbacks).
And Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, recently seen in The Tree Of Life, etc) is considered white trash and is ostracised from society. Desperately wanting to be accepted by the wealthy clique, she is able to empathise with Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a former maid who was unfairly dismissed after upsetting the imperious Holly with her confrontational attitude.
The Help is a subtle but powerful exploration of racism that has strong echoes of both The Colour Purple and the 1991 film The Long Walk Home. It’s no accident that Steven Spielberg is also one of the film’s producers. Actor turned writer/director Tate Taylor is a childhood friend of the author’s and has been able to acquire the film rights for the novel. This is Taylor’s second film, after Pretty Ugly People, and he obviously feels compassion for these women.
Performances from the ensemble cast are uniformly excellent, although Davis (so good in a small role in Doubt) is a stand out with her beautifully nuanced performance tinged with touches of pain, dignity and optimism. Spencer imbues her performance with an indomitable spirit, but she also brings some welcome touches of humour to the film with her rounded performance. Sissy Spacek also has some good moments as Hilly’s mother, while Mary Steenburgen is good in a small role as Skeeter’s Manhattan-based book editor. Chastain brings a fragile, vulnerable edge to her role.
Production values are excellent and the 60s music on the soundtrack adds to the ambience. The Help is an old-fashioned tear-jerker, in the best possible sense, and Taylor wrings plenty of sentimentality from the material. Many in the audience may well be a blubbering mess by the end.