The Help (2011)
Dir: Tate Taylor
With a great award-winning cast and a fascinating story, I found this film surprisingly moving.
Set in the town of Jackson, Mississippi around the time of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, it tells the story of young white writer Skeeter (Emma Stone) who decides to write a book from the viewpoint of the black maids (especially Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) who are an integral part of the social group Skeeter has grown up part of.
The key to it is that the stories being told by the women are so interesting in themselves, and we only get little snippets of them, but it makes the premise of writing the book truly believable, and has you quickly convinced that if it were really published it would indeed be a runaway success. Their lives are really very interesting and you can easily have sympathy for them when you see how they’re treated by many of the white women they work for.
The characters are so fully realised, they all work, and the casting is great for each of them. It’s a great ensemble of both the black housemaids, and equally good white housewives, it wouldn’t work if just one group was particularly well acted and the other was overly simplified or dumbed down, but they both have fair amounts of complexity.
At the forefront of the racial tensions is Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is superbly acted, and disliked from very early on as her strong views are so clearly racist in the light of our modern understanding and sensitivity. There’s also a wonderful turn from Jessica Chastain (who was stupidly busy that year in a load of great films) as a newcomer to the town who isn’t part of the social group and doesn’t hold to their misguided values at all, and her character is a breath of fresh air, possibly even more so in a way than Skeeter in her warm relationship with Octavia Spencer’s Minny.
This is one of the best roles I’ve seen Emma Stone in, I was already liking her work and am growing increasingly positive towards her. She was excellent in ‘Easy A’, brilliantly funny in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’, and (in my opinion) perfectly suits her role as Gwen Stacy in ‘The Amazing Spiderman’. Here her character is a catalyst, and she holds her performance back to the proper degree to show that the real heroes of this story are the other women and not her character.
The film doesn’t really offer a lot for the male viewer, though directed by a man, it clearly (and rightly so) has a female voice. Much of the sense of that coming through may be linked to the fact that Tate Taylor was a childhood friend of the source novels author Kathryn Stockett, and so has very clearly honoured her original story and made sure that her literary voice comes through into the film.
A minor thing I was left feeling needed a bit more development was the historical context, which may be known quite well to an American audience, but would be considerable more sketchy for international audiences. It’s not that I wanted them to bulk it up by giving a history and politics lesson, but maybe a few well-chosen lines might have added an extra layer of understanding for those not familiar with that time and place in civil rights history, and would help bring out how important contributing to the book is for those women and their community. As it stands, this is really left to just one scene in which we hear a the state laws, that is so truly shocking for a contemporary audience.
Even without more history being written into the film, I still felt like I gained quite a bit from it, and films like this have a place in bringing across the emotions and effects on people of events that are now viewed through academic and historically analytical eyes. I don’t think anyone could get through this film without realising how important the civil rights movement must have been for black people in the United States, and why it’s so passionately referred back to even now.