the help | movie review

Posted on December 20, 2011

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Movies about race can be problematic. Most times the subject is either glossed over and handled in a fluffy way so as to not offend anyone, or it comes ready to shock. Very rarely are they told with the necessary impact and gravitas that is required for such subject matter. American History X and Crash being two of the most powerful movies about racism ever put on the screen, in my humble opinion.

‘The Help,’ is a glossy, somewhat fluffy story about race that ends up being very slick and clean and at the same time a very thoughtful movie. Unfortunately it’s not as raw and powerful as it should have been and ends up as a bit of a semi-comedy chick flick with a message about what it was like for the black maids of the well-to-do in “the south” during the swingin’ 60s.
The movie is based on a popular novel of the same name, which I haven’t read, and presents us with a story about the lives of a small group of black ladies, allowing us to witness their strength, courage and dignity while serving the white families who view them as valueless and dirty, yet which so obviously depend on them in order to function.
“Skeeter” [Emma Stone – Zombieland] is a budding writer who was herself raised by ‘the help’, rather than her parents [though they would insist otherwise]. She’s an independent woman who doesn’t fit in with her peers who revel in their status and don’t hide their scorn and distrust for the African-American women who work for them. The worst of these is Hilly [Dallas Bryce Howard], who proposes to have all residences install a separate wc for the “coloured” help, so “the family’s bathroom won’t be contaminated”. Unfortunately she is played as a bit of a cartoon villain, although I’m sure that comes from living in this day and age. I’m sure there were [and probably still are] people like Hilly!… sadly.
Amongst such attitudes Skeeter hatches plans to tell the story of ‘the help’ from their own point of view. So she sets about persuading the black housekeepers to share their experiences of oppression with her and how it has affected their lives, and that of their families.
Aibileen [Viola Davis – Doubt] is the main protagonist, and it is her movie. Viola does an amazing job of portraying the emotions and heartache of a human being – reduced to such a low status and the conflict and heartache that she has experienced through necessity. She is fully aware of the risks of her telling her story, as do the others who decide to take part, but she also knows that this is the only way to make a change.
You’d be forgiven in thinking that this was a true story. The way it’s told I found myself thinking at times “yes, that’s just how it must have been.” I realised for the first time, just how much of a parental role these women took on in some cases. They weren’t just expected to cook and clean, but also to raise and nurture the white children of those who employed them. These children were – for all intents and purposes – neglected by their self-obsessed parents. Their affection, well-being and more importantly, their love, came from the very people that they would then, unbelievably, come to think so little of when they grew up and had their own children. Given the significant role that so many of them had on the lives of the children – it’s shocking how easily these housekeepers/guardians would be brushed aside on a whim and sent packing. Sometimes after decades of service to a family.
It’s worth mentioning that Sissy Spacek [no introduction necessary] pulls out a lovely comedic role as Hilly’s mother, but alas Alison Janey [West Wing], playing Skeeter’s mother, does her best but… well… ends up being a bit of a distraction from the real drama.

The Help doesn’t have the same gut-wrenching effect as American History X or Crash. It’s an uplifting film with some moving performances, but if you take away one thing from this movie, it’s that it reminds us just how recent in our history these attitudes were considered normal and acceptable… and that’s shocking.
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