On the surface, The Help seemed like another racial inequity film by the numbers. You know… the type of film that finds us deeply rooted in the immoral history of America and exploits a tremendous moment for cloying sentimentality. Yet, as The Help worked its way through its running time, I couldn’t help but think I completely undervalued it. I’m not saying this to sound PC in regards to a film that attempts its hand at racial goodwill. I genuinely felt the film’s emotional tug. This is in large part due to the film’s evolution into an ensemble piece that casts a light on the social inequities that not only existed back in the 60s, but reside in the present day.
If you’re a literary buff, you’ve surely heard of The Help in its pre-adapted form. For those who are new to the scene, you’ve surely seen the premise in some capacity before, but let’s do a quick catch up. The Help centers around the life of Aibileen (Viola Davis), an African-American housemaid who has built a career around cleaning up after white people and raising their children. It’s a job that forces Aibileen to sacrifice her dignity in order to make a living, but then again, can anyone blame her? With the tide rolling against African-Americans, it wasn’t only her best option, but her only one. Helping Aibileen sift through the hatred and condescending behaviors of her employers is Minny (Octavia Spencer), a fellow maid with a heaping amount of sass.
Through verbal abuse and outright hatred from their employers, Minny and Aibileen move along assertively through the social mess that is bestowed upon them. Perpetuating such a mess is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a privileged white adult whose disgust for blacks probably stems from reading The Origin of Races. Lacking any form of unbiased knowledge and having the power of public opinion, Hilly is determined to pass a city ordinance that would force African-American maids to lay waste in a bathroom separate from their employer’s house.
After seeing the terrible experiences that surround African-American maids, and becoming alienated by Hilly’s hate mongering, “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) concocts a plan to deliver the “Help’s” perspective to the world at large. By dictating the stories they have to tell, Skeeter assists the likes of Minny and Aibileen in fortifying voices that would otherwise go unnoticed. Together these women stand up to the hate that has haunted their lives and the halls of history. Emphasis should be placed on the notion that The Help is an ensemble film that prominently gives its women the screen time to dazzle.
Somehow, someway, writer-director Tate Taylor is able to take his large collection of women and give them the emotional payoff they so rightly deserve. Well, the character of Skeeter gets an under cooked love story that feels tacked on to give the film a chick flick cliché. But the love story’s superfluous vibe gives way to a greater drama and superb acting. Although all the actresses are emotionally potent, Viola Davis is a powerhouse. Her ability to blend emotional vulnerability and justifiable rage helps the film develop itself into a genuine being with enough character depth to circumvent shallowness.
Where Davis mines the emotional truth behind the film’s drama, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, the latter shows up in a subplot that delivers another tale of a woman tossed to the outskirts, deliver the film’s most entertaining bits as they deftly switch between comedy and dramatic tenderness. All of the three aforementioned actresses will surely see some Oscar attention. Acting aside, there is a level of complexity the film possesses in regards to peer relations. Such complexity is demonstrated by the film’s ability to not just highlight the pure bigotry that spewed from racist’s mouths, but also the communal pressure that made good people do the wrong thing. In the case of Hilly, you have a bigot that’s beyond misguided. She’s the clear villain, but everyone else has a part in her reign of terror. From Skeeter’s mother to her malleable friends, characters are socially forced to perpetuate the ideals of separate but equal. From this comes an insurmountable amount of pressure and guilt as characters initiate black and white issues.
With its understanding of social pressure and remarkable acting, The Help is a tender offering that initially starts off feeling forced, but with engaging characters and a disarming humor, feels like an honest portrayal of social acceptance. That may sound weird coming from a white male living in the 21st century, but everything about The Help feels sincere in its depiction. No overwrought scenes or a swelling score to exploit our sympathy to the past, it just tells a story that makes us appreciate how far the United States, a place supposedly built on freedom, has come. Obviously racism still exists and social inequality rears its ugly head, but The Help demonstrates that when people collectively fight together for change, especially in the face of turmoil, a difference can be made.