The Help (2011)
“Change begins with a whisper.”
Director: Tate Tyler
Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer
Synopsis: An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids’ point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.
Back in the 1960s, racism in the deep South of America was still mired in the ancestral slave-keeping attitudes of a century before, and The Help, Tate Tyler’s adaptation of his childhood friend Kathryn Stockett’s novel, does a good job of showing how deeply this racism was ingrained in the minds and thoughts of the upper-class Southerners who, had they lived one hundred years earlier, would have considered their black servants as slaves. Of course, change is usually a slow process, and racism by – and of – all ethnic types still exists in every corner of the world, but the incidents which take place in this movie show just what a leap forward the cause of racial equality has taken in the last half-century.
Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate, wins a job writing a column giving tips on domestic housekeeping for the local newspaper in her home town of Jackson, Mississippi, but her true ambition is to one day be a novelist. As she has absolutely no experience of housework, Skeeter asks local society housewife Elizabeth (Anna O’Reilly) if she can consult her maid Abileen (Viola Davis). While attending a bridge game at Elizabeth’s house, Skeeter witnesses an incident in the presence of Abileen in which fellow socialite Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) refuses to use Elizabeth’s toilet because she allows her black maid to use it. Dismayed by Hilly’s attitude, Skeeter decides to write a book giving the maid’s perspective of their employment by upper-class white families. Abileen at first refuses to be interviewed when approached by Skeeter, but an inspirational sermon about courage at her local church persuades her to change her mind. Later, when Hilly’s maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is fired for using her employer’s toilet during a violent thunderstorm, she too agrees to be interviewed.
Eventually, Skeeter wins the co-operation of more than a dozen black maids, all of whom have their own stories of cruelty and racism to tell. Encouraged by a New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen), Skeeter finishes the book and it is published anonymously, although it’s not long before the residents of Jackson begin to suspect that it is they who are the subjects of the book.
Filmmakers learnt early on that the most effective way of communicating the enormity of a widespread wrong is by channelling its key aspects through the experiences of a strategically numbered group of people affected by the issue. Try telling the story of an entire race and you run the risk of diluting its power; try focusing on just one person and the story becomes one of personal injustice rather than the injustice suffered by a people. With The Help, Tyler manages to illustrate the injustices that continued to be suffered by blacks long into the 20th Century, by concentrating on the stories of a couple of ordinary — yet, in their own way, remarkable — black maids. And yet, while their story is ultimately uplifting, it is told with such soap-opera sensibilities that it never really makes you feel that their treatment was one of intolerable cruelty. They suffer humiliation on screen at the hands of their callous employers, but the fact that they were also dependant on these people, that losing their jobs could signal the start of a rapid descent into even more grinding poverty, is never effectively put across. The one maid who does find herself out of work quickly finds employment with a woman who, in the eyes of the bigoted socialites, is simply a white counterpart of the blacks because she is considered to be trailer trash.
Everything’s very black-and-white (not sure whether that pun was intended or not, but there it is) in the world created by Kathryn Stockett. Apart from a few notable exceptions, all black people are kind and noble, and all white people are ignorant racists. Chief racist is the socially ambitious Queen Bee Hilly. The part is played with enjoyable venom by Bryce Dallas Howard, but her character’s villainy is a little too over the top for my liking, passing the boundaries of racism and journeying into paranoid obsession. As her character’s behaviour becomes increasingly ugly, so does her physical appearance, almost like a fairy-tale witch.
The film is further weakened by Taylor’s tendency to become distracted by secondary characters and incidents. While these may provide a wealth of insight into the people involved, it feels as though we’re introduced to a couple of minor characters too many, and that no dramatic impact would have been lost had they not been included. At 140 minutes, The Help certainly has time enough to dawdle, but the story just isn’t complex enough to justify such a lengthy running time.
Having said that, there’s no doubting the sense of purpose of all involved, and the quality of the acting is high. Emma Stone, in the nominal leading role, shoulders the responsibility with assurance, and is complemented by memorably heartfelt performances from Davis and Spencer. It’s unusual, too, to see a movie in which all the major parts are played by women that doesn’t have the fuzzy warmth of their friendship as its key ingredient. Men just don’t figure highly in this story so there’s simply no reason for them to play anything other than a minor part in it.