“The Help” Movie Review

     Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help” comes to the big screen courtesy of writer/director Tate Taylor with all of the drama and realism you would expect from a period piece of this kind.  Perhaps we are seeing this year’s first legitimate Oscar contender, especially in the acting categories, as Emma Stone leads the way in this very emotional depiction of the African American Maids who worked for White Southern families in the 1960’s Civil Rights Era.  As I watched the film, I continually thought about how I’m glad I didn’t grow up in the 60’s.  There is plenty of hate we deal with today, but it can’t possibly compare to the stereotypes ingrained in the minds of the white people in The Help. 

     Emma Stone is Skeeter Phelan, a recently graduated Journalism student who is looking to break into the business by getting a job with the local Jackson, Mississippi newspaper.  In this setting, African Americans are considered to be sub human (I guess) with white people insisting they use different toilets because of “diseases” they have.  Entire generations are raised in this manner and the result is what you see in The Help’s version of 1960’s Jackson.  Jackson’s female African American population works primarily as full time maids in White homes and we are told early on it is these maids who raise the children as the white mothers are usually too busy planning their next Bridge party.

     Minny (Octavia Spencer) is a Maid for a rather disgusting bigot named Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Right away we realize Minny is the type who will someday lead a movement against the type of treatment she and the other Maids endure on a daily basis.  That day comes when she decides to make Hilly think she has used the family restroom, at which time Hilly fires her and uses her power amongst the other bigoted white people to keep her from being hired again as a maid.  Skeeter, having grown up around this nonsense, has an idea for using her new found writing skills.

     Skeeter’s best friend’s maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis), is the first to open up and become willing to participate in a series of interviews that will expose the truth behind the treatment of all the maids in Jackson.  Skeeter’s plan is to compile interviews from as many maids as possible and publish them in a tell all book.  Just as you would think, the maids, who are a tightly knit community in and of themselves, are reluctant, but certain unbearable events in the film eventually convince the main players that the risk is worth it.

     The performances in The Help are first rate to say the least.  While you would expect an inspired performance from Emma Stone, the real stars of the film are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see both of them nominated in acting categories come awards time and the competition between them for the win will be fierce.  For the record, I would lean toward Davis as her Aibileen is responsible for some of the most touching moments I’ve seen in a film in a long time.  Spencer’s comic relief; however, can’t be ignored as it keeps this very serious subject matter light and easier to take in.

     If I have one criticism of The Help, it would be the use of such a cliched villain as the primary antagonist.  The Help’s story structure is not epic, rather it is very focused into the lives of four main characters.  Two of the characters are maids, one is the book writer, and the remaining character is a vile enough villain to merit comparison to Hannibal Lector.  Hilly is portrayed as a person whose sole purpose in life is to make black people’s lives miserable.  Particularly, the black people directly responsible for effectively raising everyone’s children.  Hilly is relentless and comes off less as a true depiction of a Southern bigot and more as a caricature written to make a point.  She’s so brutal, you get the feeling her followers are not even comfortable with her behavior.  Certainly, things in Jackson got that way due to more than just the actions of Hilly Holbrook.  It would’ve been interesting to find out why Hilly operates with such a chip on her shoulder.  Was it really just about skin color?

     Though I’m expecting many more great films in 2011, I won’t forget The Help come the end of the year.  This is as an emotional story as you will find and though I’d like to think our society has broken down the barriers depicted in The Help, the film serves as a harsh reminder of an ugly time in our nation’s history.  Nobody deserves to be treated like that. GRADE: B+