- Movie Rating -

The Help (2011)

| September 29, 2011 | 0 Comments

The Help is a very entertaining movie about how a group of strong women make a minor dent in the injustice of segregation. As a movie, it does a serviceable job, but as history it comes up a little short. Here is a movie that contains a lot of fine performances and some nice moments, but seems to dance around the uglier side of The Civil Rights movement. By the end, the problems of the main characters seem to have come to a fitting, non-violent conclusion. Yet, the real-life history of this conflict would be written in blood.

Based on the book by Kathryn Stockett (which I haven’t read), the story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s which, at the time, was run by the brass-bound segregationist Governor Ross Barnett, who had the support of The White Citizen’s Council that was determined to keep the black population in its place.  In social standing, blacks are subservient to whites and the plight of black women in the work world is cleaning the houses of white families.  They  clean house and raising the children while the white women fuss about their looks and their social status.

The focus of the film begins with a young idealist, Eungenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who has returned home from college to find that the maid who raised her from birth is no longer working there for reasons that her parents refuse to explain. Skeeter becomes curious about the woman who work in her home and in many homes in the south. “Who is taking care of their children while they are taking care of ours?”, she wonders.

The focus gradually drifts to some of the maids, mainly Abileen Clark (Viola Davis), a quietly wounded soul who lost her son, and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), an open-faced, boisterous woman whose frustration at being treated like trash by her hateful employer (Bryce Dallas Howard) is quickly coming to a boiling point.

Skeeter aspires to be a writer and has an offer from a New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) to write a book of personal accounts from the point of view of southern maids (all anonymous, of course) exposing what it is like to work in the houses of white folks, raising their children and cleaning their toilets. This is an unwise proposition given the climate of the times. The white population of Mississippi is determined to stop the progression of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement and that has black women over a barrel. The maids around town want nothing to do with the project: they need work and cleaning houses remains the only work available to them. At first, the only two women willing to participate are Minny and Abileen, but slowly the numbers begin to grow.

What I liked about The Help is the manner in which it paints the black women as individual characters, especially Minny and Abileen.  They both have separate and distinct personalities and both have different agendas.  They don’t just stand as static, noble props for the movie to lean on.  Abileen’s fury over her son becomes her motivation for getting involved with Skeeter’s book and Minny’s fury over being treated less-than-human by her employer becomes hers.

Their inspiration becomes the springboard for many other black women around town to eventually join in the writing of this book as a form of minor protest.  They aren’t marching (yet) but simply speaking, beginning with a quiet whisper that eventually will grow louder and louder.  There is a beautiful moment when Skeeter comes to Abileen’s house and is faced with a room full of black women, all silent and all eager to tell their stories.  That image has a contemporary symbolism.  How many black actress, writers and directors right now stand waiting to tell their stories, but are shut out by a Hollywood that prefers a Mad Black Woman, a prostitute, or a sex object.  The moment has more power than we initially realize.

I like that moment.  I liked that message.  I just wish that the rest of the movie had been that strong.  For every beautiful, heartfelt moment in this movie, there seems to be a scene right behind it that clangs. Here is a movie with some really strong moments and others that feel manufactured and false.

The pure emotional heart of the movie is felt by the presence of actress Viola Davis, a wonderful actress that I’ve been watching with joy for years in films like Doubt (for which she got her first Oscar nomination), Eat Pray Love and last year’s forgotten gem Trust.  Here, as Abileen, she plays a grieving mother who’s quiet frustration over the loss of her son is felt in her very presence.  There is a moment deep in the film when she sits at her kitchen table and describes to Skeeter the carelessness of her son’s on-the-job accident.  There is something in her eyes, in her voice, and in her body language that speaks to the wound deep in her heart.  You can feel the fury of this grieving mother.  This is a moment, I think, that will get her an Oscar nomination this year.  She gives the film’s best performance.

Octavia Spencer gives the film’s other good performance.  As Minny, she is separate from Abileen in that she is more animated and more vocal.  Her dismissal at the hands of her mean-spirited employer leads to a job working for a young bubble-headed housewife, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who has no housekeeping skills.  Octavia takes this young woman under her wing and becomes her mother-figure and mentor.  It is a nice relationship.

There is one character, I’m afraid, that doesn’t work at all.  That is the one played by Bryce Dallas Howard – Ron’s daughter – who occupies the role of Hilly Holbrook, Minny’s pathologically racist employer, who is so full of unmerciful venom that it washes over into cliché.  She wants a legislation passed that would forbid the maids from using the same bathroom facilities as their employers.  This was a real issue at the time, but the movie plays it as an overwrought plot device designed to climax with a moment in which she eats one of Minny’s pies, laced with a particularly disgusting ingredient (read this paragraph again carefully and you can probably deduce what it is).  It is a moment that might fit in American Pie or There’s Something About Mary but seems wrong-headed in a movie about the Civil Right’s Movement.  I was hoping that some humanity would come to Hilly with the revelation of a past connection with Celia, but sadly, it never does.

I think that The Help is a good movie, a movie with some important things to say and some performances that could turn it into a great movie, rather than just a good one.  It is entertaining, but it is also kind of safe. It dances around the uglier sides of life in Mississippi under segregation and comes to an ending that closes the book on the characters with a lot of victories. We never sense that the struggle has just begun.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2011) View IMDB Filed in: Drama