Every year there’s one movie that the Hollywood cinema gods smile upon. It’s a movie that has all the essentials of success: good storyline, likeable characters, great acting, unobtrusive directing, seamless photography and impeccable timing. An underdog in a sea of predictable commercial hopefuls, it is nevertheless, destined as an Oscar contender. Following in the footsteps of luminous predecessors like Slumdog Millionaire and the King’s Speech, The Help is 2011’s little movie groomed for greatness.
Pulling up the rear in a late summer release, The Help made a quiet entrance at the box office. After a noisy spring and summer schedule full of blustery, over-hyped releases that failed to impress, The Help picked the right time to peak, the cinemaplexs are a dearth for good movies at the moment.
But cleaning up at the box office has as much to do with quality storytelling as it does with poor competition. And does The Help have some stories to tell!
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling book, The Help tells multiple stories of female African-American domestic workers and the white households where they serve simultaneously as housekeepers, cooks and nannies. Set in rural Mississippi at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement in the early sixties, the movie works better as an ensemble piece than one with a main protagonist.
Skeeter (Emma Stone) is an Ole Miss college graduate who comes back home to Jackson, Mississippi. Much to the chagrin of her cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney), instead of finding a husband, Skeeter finds a job as a housekeeping advice columnist for the local paper. But needing advice on how to give cleaning advice, she enlists the help of a friend’s housekeeper, Aibileen (Viola Davis).
While interviewing Aibileen for her column, Skeeter realizes the true story lies with Aibileen and other black women like her who take care of white households, tending to white elders and raising white children from infancy to adulthood, while their own family and children suffer. The black women spend much of their lives working for generations of the same family, for little pay and even less respect. Yet instead of being treated as members of the family, they’re treated as subpar human beings, passed like chattel from one generation to the next.
This blatant racist attitude is exemplified by Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of Skeeter’s social circle and crusader of the white segregationist movement. Hilly doesn’t have a sympathetic bone in her body. She fires her long-time black housekeeper Minny (Octavia Spencer) for using the family’s bathroom during a storm instead of a stall that Hilly erected specifically to keep Minny’s germs from mingling with Hilly’s family.
Minny gets her revenge on Hilly though, hilariously, in more ways than one. (The classic comeuppance scene is not to be missed. It’s worth the price of admission alone.) One of those ways is to work for Celica (Jessica Chastain), a newcomer to Jackson shunned by Hilly’s group for being from the wrong side of town and for marrying Hilly’s one true love. Minny also agrees to talk to Skeeter about her experiences working for Hilly, since Skeeter, with Aibileen’s help, has decided to write a book about the unfair and inhumane treatment of black domestic workers in white households.
It’s a huge step for Aibileen, Minny and others like them to step forward to tell their stories. Even though their identities and their employers identities are hidden, they risk their lives and livelihoods if discovered. This act of stepping up to tell their stories is the height of courage for these women. All they have depends on them keeping their jobs in those white households and placating their fickle mistresses.
In the backdrop, the Civil Rights Movement bubbles up around them, raising their consciounsess about what other blacks are willing do to get equal treatment. But those realities were still distant for Aibileen, Minny and their friends. At that point their realities had to do with earning enough money to survive and to take care of their families.
But one by one, the women begin to realize that they have to the ability to rise above their treatment and take the power that is in their possession – the power to share, the power to express themselves. When they start to share their stories, that is when they free themselves from the grip of their racist employers. By sharing their stories, they help not only themselves, but others as well. Aibileen is the first worker willing to tell her story. She becomes the catalyst for the other women to share their stories.
When the book is published, it scandalizes Hilly and the town. As the Civil Rights Movements picks up steam all around, it’s apparent that the fear of telling stories is minute in comparison to the real physical harm that leaders of the Movement were subjected to. But for Aiblieen, Minny and their friends, it marks the dawn of a new era in their lives as black domestic workers in Jackson. It is a step forward and toward respect and equality.
Don’t let the big themes percolating beneath the surface of The Help scare you. It’s not a movie about the Civil Rights Movement, or even one about racism. (It doesn’t have the substance, or the depth, for those big discussions.) It is, however, entertainment that makes you think. It makes you think about the things that divide us, like race, class, culture, ethnicity, religion and anything else that makes people different from each other and that people use against one another. It makes you think about the low wage workers of today’s age, the migrant and immigrant workers, domestic help, childcare providers, healthcare aides, temporary workers and others who society ignores and who are unable to tell their stories without fear of reprisal and or loss of livelihood.
Though the characters that inhabit the movie are broad caricatures, they come to life in the fearless performances of the actresses who infuse them with believability. Viola Davis makes the quiet Aibileen a pillar of strength, someone who knows that her actions will lead to self harm, but who proceeds nevertheless because it’s the right thing to do. Octavia Spencer as the sassy Minny is a skilled comedienne, one who has the audience eating from her hand as easily Minny got Hilly to eat her pie. Current “It” girl, Emma Stone, makes Skeeter likeable and fun, if a tad too modern for the setting. Special kudos should be given to Bryce Dallas Howard as the detestable Hilly. There’s nothing to like about Hilly and Howard doesn’t try to make her understandable or sympathetic – now that’s fearless acting!
It’s not so hard to understand why The Help has pulled away from the pack of mediocre movies. It’s entertainment that makes you think, laugh and cry. And you can’t ask for more than that.