Let me just say that writing about a film like The Help is not an easy task. The main problem with reviewing this movie is walking the thin line between good filmmaking and historical accuracy. You can’t get too obsessed with historical accuracy when it comes to films, but you certainly can’t ignore it all together. And the fact that I’m a 23-year-old white male doesn’t help, but I shall give it my best shot.
The Help is the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel about African American maids living in Jackson, Mississippi. Viola Davis plays Aibileen Clark, an African American maid who serves as narrator for most of the film. She has spent her whole life raising white families’ children, despite the fact that she had a child of her own. The mothers of Jackson spend more time socializing and playing cards with one another than they do with their own children. Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, who returns home after graduating college to work at the local paper. Skeeter is the pre-feminist feminist; choosing a life of her own beyond getting married and having kids. She tries to reintegrate with her old hometown friends, including Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard); but she isn’t the same person as she used to be. She begins to see the how poorly maids are treated and decides to make their voice heard. She gathers stories from Aibileen, Minny (Octavia Spencer) and many other housemaids who have plenty of things to say about their employers; both good and bad. With the help of her publisher in New York, Skeeter publishes The Help, giving people in and out of Jackson a better picture of the women who raise their children.
Viola Davis portrays Abileen as a reluctant but dutiful mother. She gets no respect from her employers, but you can tell she truly loves the children that she cares for, (who ironically will grow up and likely have her raise their children as well.) Emma Stone plays the story’s moral compass in a way that doesn’t come off condescendingly. Octavia Spencer plays a good foil to Stone however; she doesn’t immediately graciously accept Skeeter’s help, which keeps it realistic. One thing I took away is how well Bryce Dallas Howard can play a bitch, I mean seriously! She has the “girl next door” vibe a lot of times, but this film and 50/50 show that she can definitely play the flipside of the coin.
There are praises and complaints for The Help. Could it have been harsher in its depiction of life as a maid? Perhaps. Did it reinforce stereotypes of absent black fathers? Perhaps. I don’t think that any of this hurts the final product of the film; no one is going to walk away from it thinking “You know what? Those maids didn’t have it so bad.” Raising a family that isn’t yours for less than minimum wage, being segregated to outhouses and taking daily verbal lashings will never seem “not so bad.” Besides, how realistic can a film be that has a woman who (*SPOILER ALERT*) eats a pie containing extract of excrement, and doesn’t even realize it? (Yep, that happened.)
Final Grade: B