When I first saw the trailer for The Help, I had absolutely no desire to ever see the film. It was marketed as a comedy, a light and airy romp about a young girl’s quest to fight bigotry. It looked trite, schmaltzy and saccharine. But a friend convinced me I shouldn’t miss it so, still skeptical, I dragged family and friend to the theater. We all loved it.
The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Racism is prevalent and colored people are still treated almost as slaves. They live difficult lives and can find work only as maids, cooks and factory workers, for which they are paid almost nothing. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, disgusted by her friends’ ignorant prejudice, seeks to effect a change by writing a book told from the perspective of “the help.” Barely able to survive on their piddling incomes, the maids fear the repercussions of getting involved. But as racial unfairness burgeons, the help decides that it is time for people to hear their story.
This film is not a comedy. Sure, some comedic moments had me roaring, but it is definitely a drama—a serious, disheartening and sometimes disturbing film about the destructiveness of racial prejudice. Tears came more readily than laughs as I shared in the characters’ trials and heartaches. It’s moving and sentimental, and it deals head-on with bigotry, unfairness and physical abuse.
The film ran over two hours but never felt overlong. Flashbacks and back stories made the characters more real. In one especially heartbreaking scene, the maid Aibileen recalls the death of her son after brutal mistreatment by his white employer. The dialogue is mostly good, often great, but sometimes tacky. The film was occasionally cliché and “sweet,” but these moments were brief and sparse. The ending made no attempt to be happy; I was given the impression that the worst was yet to come.
Viola Davis gives an award-worthy performance as Aibileen, the film’s narrator and the first maid willing to come forward with her stories. Emma Stone does a fine job in the role of Skeeter but I felt the casting wasn’t a perfect fit. Bryce Dallas Howard portrays the hateful Hilly, a crusader with a shocking animosity towards blacks and their “strange diseases.” Octavia Spencer is hilariously sassy as Minny and provides great laughs while supporting an emotional subplot.
Bad language is sporadic but sticks out like a sore thumb. While some of it fits within the context of the story, especially in a highly comedic running gag about human waste, mostly it feels out of character and unnecessary. There are a few discussions of sexual activity. One bloody scene shows the aftermath of a miscarriage, but nothing graphic. There is some brutal violence which, while never shown, made me sick to my stomach.
The cinematography is bright and colorful, in stark juxtaposition to the dark undertones of
the film. The costume was authentic and the locations made me feel like I was in ‘60s Mississippi. Newman’s score was gorgeous, often light and sweet, driven by high notes of the piano. This was accompanied by an eclectic assortment of songs appropriate to the era. Cash’s Jackson appears in an early scene, a nod to the film’s setting.
The Help is my kind of film. It had an outstanding plot that delved into deep and serious themes, boasted an outstanding cast, had great character development and humor, and educated its audience about the horrors of racial intolerance. This film does an excellent job portraying one of the darkest times in American history, and I was disturbed to realize that all this happened so recently. The film is already generating much-deserved Oscar buzz. Put it at the top of your to-see list.