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The Help Review

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by Casimir Harlow Mar 22, 2012 at 2:49 PM

    The Help Review

    It would be nice to think that education would mark the death of racism. Not only educating those who were brought up in insulated, narrow-minded environments to be more open to the world around them, but also in giving a universally standardised education to everybody in order to put us all on an equal footing. Unfortunately we’re a long way off that.

    Realistically, the only hope is time; with time, blood will mix, colours will blend, and, eventually, “pure” races – as we currently know them – will no longer exist. It’s probably the only thing that will make a sizeable dent in racism, maybe even eradicate it.

    The Help takes us back to a time when things were a whole lot worse than they are now, but were on the cusp of becoming a whole lot better than they were before.

    In the 1960s civil rights movements ignited the United States; segregation and racism – going hand in hand – would ravage the nation, and political forces of changes, like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, would fight to get their controversial messages across, even at the expense of their own lives.

    The life of the average suburban housewife, however, was just as integral to American society, and just as corrupt. After years of slavery, African-Americans were granted independence, but not equality, with the majority of black women left to accept below-minimum-wage jobs working in the households of rich white families; tending to their every whim; taking care of – and pretty-much raising – their children; all the while treated like lesser humans by their ‘masters’.

    The Help tells the tale of Aibileen Clark, one of a number of black maids that work for a group of suburban housewives that have nothing better to do than gossip, play cards and complain about their underpaid staff. Leader of this pack of lazy, ignorant, women is Hilly, a bullying closet racist who is forever attempting to undermine the work of the local ‘help’, and who is using the status she commands amidst her peers to try and push through a bill to further extend segregation to now involve her staff having separate – often outdoor – toilet facilities, in order to “avoid their diseases”.

    Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is different from the other white women in the area, however. Having grown apart from her now-married friends – including Hilly – she has enjoyed a cultured, diverse University education at the expense of a marriage and children, and finds the return to her hometown quite a shock to the system. With a potential job as a journalist in New York – if she gains the right experience – she takes up a lowly position working for the local newspaper, and is commissioned to ghost write the column on homemaker hints. In researching for the task she enlists the help of Aibileen, but soon discovers a much more controversial story lurking beneath the surface; one which simply needs to be told.

    Based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 debut book of the same name, which proved to be something of a sleeper-hit Bestseller, Tate Taylor’s The Help is a potent, often touching period drama. Although the book has never been promoted as anything other than historically-placed fiction, Stockett’s vision is clearly informed by her own experiences both as a low-level journalist striving to get a book published and, more importantly, in being herself brought up by an African-American maid in lieu of her absentee mother. Even though it’s obviously told from a ‘white woman’s perspective’, she has clearly conducted meticulous research to pack her tale with true-to-life stories from real black maids. She also commissioned childhood friend Taylor to direct any potential future film version of her book even before she secured a published, and so it’s not surprising that the clearly close-collaboration film of theirs that we see now is a very faithful adaptation of the material (notwithstanding, of course, the editing required to render any full-length book as a manageably-sized feature film).

    Indeed if one were feeling particularly picky, it would be possible to raise the faithfulness of this adaptation as a potential criticism – the film retains so much of what made the book so great that it arguably makes reading the book unnecessary. Yet this should actually be considered to be high praise, and, furthermore, the reverse effect is far less apparent: whilst reading the book first does rob the film of some of its shock value (we’re not talking ‘horror shocks’, we’re talking, “I can’t believe people behaved like that back then!”), the end result is still a surprisingly rewarding watch.

    You may not think it from the film’s promotion; you may dismiss it in spite of its Oscar attention, but The Help, whilst far from a perfect film, is still a sometimes powerful, sometimes moving, always engrossing voyage into yesteryear; a reflection on times which we’d rather forget in embarrassment, despite the fact that behaviour like this went unchecked for so many years.

    Of course – whilst there is no denying that the important issues at the heart of the film should attract interest from both sexes – this is still, undoubtedly, a drama driven entirely by, and about, women. The tale it tells is clearly intended to open your eyes to the stories of these unsung heroines; the African-American maids who raised entire generations of wealthy white American children, yet were never given any real recognition for their work, and, in doing so, remind us that the seemingly innocuous close-minded thinking of the average American housewife in the 60s could actually be as damaging to society as the better-publicised, more conventionally horrific acts of the white supremacist minorities.

    To tell this tale we have strong characters on both sides of the table, and certainly one of the biggest highlights of the production is the tremendous cast who all do a fantastic job at bringing these rich characters to life.

    It’s difficult to judge them above one another, but the maid Aibileen; the housewife Hilly; and the writer Skeeter are arguably the three most important characters, and thus three most prominent actresses are Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone, respectively.

    Davis, who cut her teeth on a number of Steven Soderbergh movies (Out of Sight, Traffic, Solaris), crept her way through the ranks in bit-part roles in everything from State of Play to Law Abiding Citizen – she was one of the best things about the insipid Julia Roberts vehicle, Eat Pray Love – but only truly came into the limelight in 2011, nearly achieving Oscar glory for her performance here (losing out to Oscar favourite Meryl Streep who won Best Actress for her Oscar-friendly biopic, The Iron Lady). She is great in the role of the beleaguered, repressed maid Aibileen, who has suffered in silence for too long, and who finds a new lease of life in her journey to have her story told at whatever cost.

    As Skeeter, Emma Stone similarly comes into her own. The young, upcoming actress proved her worth at an early stage, with a bevy of strong female roles in a string of comedy-dramas, from Superbad to Zombieland; Easy-A to Crazy Stupid Love, and is on the brink of absolute super-stardom with her pivotal role in the upcoming (and painfully unnecessary) Spiderman reboot, but it’s her role in The Help which finally shows audiences a different side to her talents. Initially almost unrecognisable in the part – channelling the look of an Almost Famous-era Kate Hudson – she shows considerably greater range than before, and brings both strength and humility to her spokesperson-for-the-disregarded. She may still have some limitations, but her work on this project shows far greater potential than before; the more substantial material obviously forcing her to dig deeper.

    For as much as we despise her character – the bigoted leader of the wolf-pack; the quintessential schoolyard head bully, Hilly – we should also pay equal regard to the strength of Bryce Dallas Howard’s contribution; indeed she’s so convincing that you will likely find it hard to remember that this is the same actress who made her name played so many unquestionably “good” roles in everything from The Village to Terminator: Salvation. Sure, she (unnecessarily) took over the villainous role of Victoria in the Twilight Saga, but she was distinctly unmemorable in it. Here she absolutely nails it as the prissy elitist who treats her maids like lesser beings, and who manipulates her clique-like friends into doing the same.

    Aside from this trio of top actresses, there’s a superb supporting cast which includes The Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain, also unrecognisable as the white-trash-woman-turned-suburban-housewife who Hilly and her clique woefully ostracise; The West Wing’s Allison Janney as Skeeter’s troubled mother, cancer- and guilt-ridden, the latter as a result of what she did to her own maid; and Sissy Spacek (Carrie herself) as Hilly’s outspoken mother who has issues with both alcohol and dementia.

    The only Oscar that the film actually won was for Octavia Spencer’s Best Supporting Actress performance as another maid within this local community, Minny, who is best friends with Viola Davis’s Aibileen. Spencer’s been getting bit part cameos at best over the last decade; you will likely recognise her if you watch the TV series Ugly Betty, but, if not, you might have seen her in a number of tiny roles (including Seven Pounds). Here she excels as the outspoken maid who often gets into trouble for speaking her mind, having not only the most “you go girl!” moments, but also some of the funniest lines. It’s no surprise to find that she too is a longtime friend of both the writer of the novel, Kathryn Stockett, and the director Tate Taylor, and that she in fact inspired the character from the book which she plays in the film.

    Driven by this ensemble cast of superb contributors, The Help retains the powerful underlying spirit of its source novel, combining a few striking pause-for-thought socio-political issues with a warm energy that often results in welcome comic relief. Perhaps the male characters suffer the editing process moreso than the women – Skeeter’s love interest, in particular, being largely left on the cutting-room floor, to the point where you wonder whether he would have been better off completely written out of it – and perhaps some will find that the drama takes a while to get going (the attempt at a ‘cold open’ start to the film is fairly ineffectual), but, for a two-and-a-half-hour drama, this is pretty damn engrossing, and certainly picks up momentum as it goes along, proving particularly successful in its emotional delivery largely as a result of taking its time to establish the characters in the first place.

    If you’re a fan of the book then there’s plenty to enjoy here in seeing the words brought to life, but those who have only heard about how good the book was and read about how acclaimed the movie is should invest the time in actually watching it. There’s plenty to appreciate – whether you laugh, cry; are outraged or impassioned – it’s a quality period drama that reflects upon an untold part of the racist history of America. Even if prejudice is still rife in many parts of the world, at least a large majority of the modern generation can look back on the events like those told in The Help and see just how wrong it all was. Recommended.