The Help | Tate Taylor, 2011
Almost every year, there is a film about the struggle of a colored person and the white savior that helps them become a better person. If it’s even remotely decent, then droves of people will see it (case in point: The Blind Side). But none of these films ever rises above being decent to good. They are always safe in terms of filmmaking and story with a nice message about being to good to everyone etc. The Help could have ended up being one of these, but as it goes along it rises above all of the films of its kind (for a reason addressed in a bit).
The Help stars Emma Stone as Skeeter, a recent college graduate who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi to get some experience as a journalist. But the only job she finds is writing the homemaking column. She takes it, and immediately falls back to her old group of friends, led by Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). These girls are a bunch of racist mean girls, and Skeeter, being the smartest of the bunch realizes it and feels uncomfortable right away as she sees how the black maids are treated. One of these maids is Abileen (Viola Davis), who has raised 17 white children as part of her work and is still treated pretty badly. As she sees the treatment the help gets, Skeeter decides to write a book from the perspective of the maids. Abileen, the first one she wants to interview is weary about it because if she gets caught talking about her bosses, she could get lynched. But eventually she comes around. There’s also Minnie (Octavia Spencer), Hilly’s maid who gets fired after trying to use a bathroom inside the house she services. She eventually joins Skeeter’s cause, and also starts to work for Celia Foote, a sween and tolerant woman with some personal demons that Hilly and her friends consider to by the town’s floozy, and in there she finds what may be the best job she can do in her profession. As the film progresses, we see the struggle (a sweetened version at that), that these women go through, which leads them to cooperate with Skeeter in her tell-all book.
Despite the fact that the reviews this film has gotten are mixed to positive, when it comes down to it is one of the most divisive films of the year. As it has always been the cases with this type of film, no matter how hard the filmmakers try, they can’t always please everyone. There are those that complain that the film is not realistic enough, that it doesn’t show the true hardships that the maids faced. That’s fine I guess, wanting to see a film where the maids are raped, beaten, abused, and lynched, but I for sure wouldn’t want to watch it in theaters during a happy afternoon because I can’t usually stomach that on the big screen.
Then there are those that think that the way the story is told, that the white person is the savior is outdated now that we have a black president, and that they should have had a black character be the leader, get the credit for the book, etc. Again, that would make a fine film, but you would have to either sacrifice realism or end up with a very depressing film. If they opted for the happy ending where the black maid ended up the hero and she would go up to progressive New York and become a writer, then even more people would complain about the lack of realism. The truth is that if say Abilene had written the book and she had managed to do it without the help of Skeeter, it would have never gotten published even in the progressive north and she would have never gotten the job that Skeeter got.
And finally there are those like me, who know what we are getting into and simply hope that it is not a bad film. It’s a film from a major Hollywood studio, from an Oprah-endorsed best seller by a white woman, and white people made it. And it is actually pretty great despite all this. It could have ended up like The Blind Side, but in reality it turned out to be much better than that. Yes, the script is flawed with its ordinary take on the time period, broad characters, one-note villains, and silly poop jokes (wait, I actually liked that aspect of it). But one aspect of the whole thing elevates it to highs that it would have never reached with the average direction, and the average script: the performances.
If there is one thing that could unite everyone about this film is the great work that every person in this film puts forward. Everyone captures the essence of their character to a tee, and brings it forward without a hitch. Emma Stone once again plays the good girl that is smarter than everyone, but unlike her great work on Easy A, she has to put some emotion forward, as her character deals with the issues of the maids, the illegality of her writing the book about the maids (it was really illegal to write about the plight on the black people), and trying to hide it all by continuing to be friends with the racist version of The Plastics. As the leader of these racist southern belles is Bryce Dallas Howard had to play a truly despicable human and over-the-top human being, and she succeeded. She makes Voldemort seem tame in comparison. But of all the white supporting actors, the best one is Jessica Chastain. She makes playing a daft, happy-go-luck, and drunken blonde bombshell look easy, and it is not without going way over-the-top. I loved her. She deserves an Oscar nomination for this, but in any case, it helps her case in getting one for another film this year like Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, and maybe even The Debt.
But there are two performances that stand head and a shoulder above those, and that is saying something. First there’s Octavia Spencer as Minnie. She is one of those character actors that you recognize every time you see them, but never know their names. That shouldn’t be a problem from now on as she gets her chance to shine, and boy does she take advantage of it. Her character has some of the funniest moments in the film and some of the best lines. And she delivers them with so much conviction and sass that she steals the show. There is a darker side to her character, and she also plays that perfectly without any sign that she is just acting. I really hope she scores an Oscar nomination if only to give her career the push she needs and so that she doesn’t end up in a Tyler Perry film. The other performance, and the absolute best of the film, belongs to Viola Davis. Her character is quiet and just does her work as well as she can to earn a living, but she is filled with all kinds of emotions. And when they come out, the film reaches its peak. I know that she is proably a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, even a win, even though she is a co-lead along with Emma Stone. However, I seriously hope that Disney pusher her for lead. Sure, she’ll be going to go against Meryl Streep going for her third Oscar by playing Margaret Thatcher, as well as Glenn Close going for her first by playing a woman who dresses as a man to earn a living in a man-driven world, but I believe that her work is strong enough to take on them both and to weather the storm that usually brews around that category.
There’s also great work from Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson (in a great cameo performance), but those take a backseat to the actors that have the juicier roles.
The Help would have been a nice three-star film based on the scrip, production, and direction. But the performances make it one of the best films of the year. I think it will be hard for any other film, at least American film, to have a finer acting ensemble this year.