The Help was adapted from the novel of the same name published by Kathryn Stockett in 2009. Directed by Tate Taylor and starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard amongst others, this is truly an ensemble cast where all the characters contribute to a single coherent storyline even though there may be several small tangents that go off here and there to explore side stories that develop and deepen the main storyline.
Set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, The Help explores the relationship between the black “help” and the wealthy white families of Jackson. The focal point of the movie revolves around the journalist Skeeter (Emma Stone) attempting to tell the stories of the maids about the racism that they endure as part of their daily lives. Desperate to make inroads into the closely-knit and guarded black community, she eventually befriends Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis). Through Aibileen, she’s eventually able to reach out to other maids in order to gather their stories for the upcoming book.
Throughout the movie, several side stories interweave themselves into a single tapestry that guides the audience through the complex relationships and social life of a single neighborhood in Jackson. Racism’s ugly head pops up throughout the movie, with each occurrence marking a somber reminder of the ugly time that America has left behind. Black people were treated as property, and sometimes even less than property as well. The joyful ebullience of the black community is quashed into silent servitude for a majority of the movie.
For the most part, The Help neither pleases nor causes revulsion, but strikes an odd state between the two. A roller-coaster ride in between the stanzas of the white / black divide is the best allegory that one can probably find to describe the mood of the movie. There are high notes, low notes, and then the murky blend of the two that most of the movie’s runtime finds itself in.
At times, The Help seemed to be a spin-off from Forrest Gump – that most banal of American history dramatization. Being an focused story based on historical stereotypes, it was inevitable that The Help would fall into predictability and end up with a positive ending as flawed as it may have been. Overall though, The Help succeeded because of its acting. Some over-the-top caricatures (especially by Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote) were completely in character for the story that The Help was trying to tell. As such, instead of being distasteful – one cannot be able to imagine the movie any other way without those performances.
Based on the novel that I haven’t read yet, The Help was a smash runaway hit for Disney/Touchstone. Nominated for three Oscars, with one win for Best Supporting Actress – Octavia Spencer (as Minny Jackson), The Help won with both critics and audience alike. Nearly $170M at the US box office is always a successful movie, especially when the same movie was only made for about $25M. With the success of The Help in both domains (critics & audiences), it should incentivize studios to adapt more books with good stories instead of making the same old technologically advanced movies (but terrible storylines) that barely turn a profit compared to how much money was poured into them. Might I suggest that somebody adapt Hillary Jordan’s fantastic When She Woke?.
7 years later…
Unfortunately, America hasn’t left racism behind. Nor sexism. This movie actually passes the Bechdel Test, but fails the anti-Bechdel Test.
MPAA Rating: PG-13