US Release Date: 08-10-2011
Directed by: Tate Taylor
- Emma Stone, as
- Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan
- Viola Davis, as
- Aibileen Clark
- Bryce Dallas Howard, as
- Hilly Holbrook
- Octavia Spencer, as
- Minny Jackson
- Jessica Chastain, as
- Celia Foote
- Ahna O'Reilly, as
- Elizabeth Leefolt
- Allison Janney, as
- Charlotte Phelan
- Anna Camp, as
- Jolene French
- Chris Lowell, as
- Stuart Whitworth
- Sissy Spacek, as
- Missus Walters
- Cicely Tyson, as
- Constantine Jefferson
- Mike Vogel as
- Johnny Foote
Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help.
The Help could have been an insightful look at the intricate state of race relations between rich, southern white women and their black servants in Jackson, MS in the 1960s. Instead of being insightful, the filmmakers paint their story with the broadest possible strokes in distinct black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. The heroes of the story are mostly saintly, while the villain is a cartoon caricature. It has all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the head with the phrase, "Racism is wrong" written on it.
I say intricate race relations, because you have on the one hand, a group of women who felt themselves superior racially, and yet entrusted these "inferior" women with the raising of their children. You have the maids, who are paid employees, but also part of the family to an extent, at least to the children they raise. Many of these women probably spend more time with their maid than they do with their husband every day.
Current "It" girl Emma Stone plays Skeeter, a wannabe journalist, newly graduated from college, who returns to her hometown of Jackson, MS. She needs some experience and a story to garner attention to land a job in New York City. She sees her opportunity in the black maids of Jackson. She decides to tell their story, from their point-of-view. To that end she enlists the help of Aibileen (Viola Davis), the maid of a friend of Skeeter's. Aibileen recruits her friend Minny and the two of them recruit more maids.
The villain of the piece is Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. She starts a movement to try and pass a law that states all homes with black servants must install a separate a bathroom for the help so that the white people won't pick up black diseases. She rules the young women in town, telling them how to behave and who is in and who is out.
Some of the things presented as Hilly's racism are a bit dubious however. At one point Hilly's new maid asks her for a loan of $75 and Hilly turns her down. True, she does it in a condescending manner, but when is it appropriate to ask your boss for a loan, no matter how noble the cause? Later the maid finds a ring behind Hilly's sofa, which she steals and pawns, which Hilly reports to the police and the maid is arrested. While the police are overly rough when they arrest her, I have to side with Hilly on this one. The maid broke the law, but her act is presented sympathetically and Hilly's villainously. Just because she was going to use the money to send her sons to college, doesn't make it any less wrong.
While Hilly and the writing of the book are the main plot devices, I found one subplot to be the most interesting. Minnie, as played by a scene-stealing Octavia Spencer, is fired by Hilly for using the master bathroom and Hilly gets her black-balled so that no one in town will hire her. She ends up working for the newly arrived Celia, whom Hilly and her group consider white trash. Celia is the hot as hell, but not too bright, new bride of a rich young local who the women think has married beneath him. She hires Minnie because she needs help learning how to cook and tend house. She treats Celia like a person and Minnie ands up helping her in return.
The cast in general does a good job, with Viola Davis being one of the dramatic standouts. She maintains a stoic facade and yet delivers a nuanced performance. I wouldn't be surprised to hear her name batted around in the supporting actress category when awards season starts.
At two plus hours, the movie runs long. There's a subplot with Skeeter going on a date and developing a relationship that could have been cut completely. I'm assuming it's there to either stay true to the book or to give Emma Stone more to do, but in any case it's not needed.
There's an old fashioned feel to The Help and not just in the setting, but in the filmmaking style as well. It's entertaining enough, but some shades of grey and added nuance would have given it more depth.
Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook in The Help.
I enjoyed The Help more than you did Scott, although I agree that it lacks subtlety. The reason that didn’t bother me though is because this is a big colorful summer movie not a serious awards season film. It’s a dramedy and it paints both its laughs and its tears with broad vivid strokes. The characters are all familiar archetypes and the time era and setting have likewise been depicted many times in movies over the years.
Fortunately they hired the best cast of women since Steel Magnolias (the male actors are all in unimportant supporting roles). Cuteness personified Emma Stone continues her climb to superstardom. I also agree that Viola Davis proves yet again that she possesses some of the best acting chops in the business today. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain make Minny and Celia two of the most likable people in the story, and Allison Janney is ready to take on any part that would once have gone to Olympia Dukakis. Legends Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson are both around in small but important parts.
But it is Bryce Dallas Howard that walks away with the movie. Her Hilly Holbrook is a classic movie villain. Sure her actions are cartoonish at times but Howard clearly relishes the chance to play the most snobby stuck-up bitch since Nelly Olsen. She is gleefully cruel at times and you can see it in her eyes. To her credit Howard manages to impart just enough humanity to keep Hilly from being a total caricature.
Scott, I don’t think the filmmakers were saying that Hilly’s turning down her maid for a loan was in itself racist or that the maid was right in stealing the ring. They had already made it perfectly clear that Hilly was a racist bitch and the way she reacts to her maid’s request for a loan (which was really just an advance on her pay) is par for the course.
The Help could have been better. I agree that it runs too long and that the subplot with Skeeter’s boyfriend should have been cut. The real joy to be found here is in simply watching this talented cast of ladies brilliantly playing off of each other.
Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in The Help
The novel's author Kathryn Stockett, is from Mississippi. She was born in 1969 and grew up in a home with a black maid. Her novel is based on her own experiences, as well as stories she heard about taking place before she was even born. Much of The Help rings with a sense of truth, but logic seems to dictate that not everything is.
The relationship between most employers and their employees have at least some level of friction. Anytime one person tells another what to do there is bound to be some amount of conflict. It is natural, regardless of race. People also get caught up in a status quo. It would be easy for a white person in that time and place to be racist, as that was how they were born and raised. It would also be understandable for blacks to be complacent to their social status for as one maid describes, her grandmother and mother were maids as well.
When you have a person working in your home, the employee/employer relationship is extremely personal. These maids see and know everything about them. Look at the scene where Minny lets Celia know why Hilly does not like her. Considering that, it makes little sense for someone like Hilly to act like such a hate filled bitch to her maid. She is such a bigot that I wonder why she even has a colored woman working for her.
The Help is filled with Hollywood stereotypes. All the rich white women are simple minded southern belles who cannot think for themselves, or lift a single finger to do the least bit of work. All the black women are noble, with limitless wisdom. Celia is the worst stereotype of all. As a poor white woman, she is nice and pleasant to everyone, be it her black maid or the stuck up white women. In typical Hollywood fashion, the rich are evil and the poor are nice and friendly. In truth, poor people are more racist than rich people. Racism is largely based on jealousy and insecurities, of which, poor people have in spades over the rich.
I enjoyed the relationship between Celia and Minny. Celia treats Minny with respect, while Minny acts as her maternal advisor. My favorite line is when Celia says that Minny should probably burn the fried chicken a little so her husband will not suspect that someone else cooked it. Minny gives Celia a look and states, "Minny don't burn chicken."
Viola Davis plays a sad defeated woman, with surprising grace and poise. Octavia Spencer gives strength to Minny, who faces a challenge at every turn. Jessica Chastain makes like Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop, nice to look at but hopelessly clueless.
There are some good performances here, and some decent scenes. As a whole story though, I never got caught up in it. What is accomplished? Some rich women act snooty and some black women get brave enough to complain about it. A white woman gets humiliated and some black women get fired. What was the lesson or story arc? The Help does not deserve to win best picture.
Photos © Copyright Dreamworks (2011)