Passed around in book club circles in virtually every community North, South, East, and West, Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, “The Help”, reached the zeitgeist and spent more than 103 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List. “The Help” became the go-get book for the summer of 2009, and massive praise was heaped on the tale of three women, one white and two black, dealing with the unfathomable difficulties of segregation and race relations in early 1960′s Jackson, Mississippi. Stockett drew on her own life experiences to write the novel and while a massive success when it finally saw its release, more than 60 literary agents rejected Stockett’s work prior to its getting published.
Shortly after the book saw its breakout success, Hollywood came calling and the rights to “The Help” were purchased in December 2009. Lots were interested in taking a crack at the adaptation but Stockett had one unbreakable provision – her friend, an actor and fledgling filmmaker, Tate Taylor, had to have approval to write and direct the feature. DreamWorks and Disney acquiesced to the demand and devoted fans of the book should be quite pleased overall with the final product. “The Help” is extremely well-acted and in all the right moments, the film is quite moving and affecting.
Taking place in Jackson, Mississppi, circa 1963, “The Help” focuses in on the lives of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a mere two workers out of a number of African-American women who work as maids, nannies, and caregivers to an upper middle-class white community. Segregation is at its heights and not only do Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids have to raise the children of their families and tend to their in-house responsibilities, they must often do so during Bridge Club events, social dinners, and meetings led by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Holbrook has designs on lobbying for a new statewide ballot initiative which would require families to install separate bathrooms for the “coloreds”, all in the hopes of perpetuating “separate but equal” the definitive law of the land.
Returning home to Jackson, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), has decided to become a writer and is hired to ghostwrite a local housekeeping column for the local newspaper, The Jackson Journal. Skeeter is welcomed back by her cancer-stricken mother (Alison Janney), and is initially thrilled to reconnect with Hilly and her other friends. However, she is also wanting to see Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the maid she has known since birth who confusingly, picked up everything and relocated to Chicago. Skeeter wants answers but her parents are non-committal about Constantine’s story.
Without Constantine, Skeeter becomes increasingly more self-aware of life in Jackson and approaches Aibileen about a possible interview for a book she wants to write. Aibileen refuses and soon word spreads to Minny and other maids about Skeeter’s desires to learn more about life from the perspective of the maids who tend to the families in Skeeter’s community. In a society where young women look to marriage and motherhood in their future, Skeeter wants a career – a decision that places her increasingly at odds with her mother, her friends, and Hilly, who wants to set her up with a future husband. Still, Skeeter persists and when Aibileen agrees to privately share her life experiences with
Skeeter, Minny begins considering offering her stories and Skeeter’s project becomes bigger and more important in ways she could have never imagined.
That a great many people have read and loved Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” had to make Tate Taylor’s task a daunting one. As opposed to the shifting narrative structure of the Stockett novel, Taylor allows Skeeter and Minny to have their moments, but wisely drives the narrative through Viola Davis’ Aibileen.
And any conversation about the cinematic success of “The Help” starts and stops with Viola Davis’ performance. She is nothing less than extraordinary and while not in every scene, her presence is felt in every frame and every moment. For Davis, an actress recognizable from any number of past projects, including her Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actress appearance in 2008′s “Doubt”, Davis makes good on finally landing a true leading role. So completely entrenched in the character of Aibileen, it is quite likely that Viola Davis and Aibileen Clark will be names that become synonymous with one another. In a fantastic career thus far, this is Davis’ long overdue breakthrough performance.
Emma Stone, Hollywood’s “It Girl” for 2011, shows that she is not a flash in the pan and deserves a seat at the table with the finest of acting talent. Stone plays Skeeter with a wit and wisdom and quiet rebellion that makes her an endearing figure.
Much will be written about Octavia Spencer’s winning turn as Minny and deservedly so. Another actress who you recognize but likely could never name, Spencer is the motherly soul of the film, Aibileen’s best friend, and overseer of not only her own children but the other maids as well. When fate brings Minny to the doorstep of Celia (Jessica Chastain), an outcast member of the Jackson wives community, Minny is soon mothering and looking after another person desperately in need of a calming presence.
And just a quick note about Jessica Chastain, who drew raves for her performance in 2011′s “The Tree Of Life”, as the long-suffering wife to Brad Pitt’s character. Chastain is pure and real as Celia, a woman and wife without a place in a world ruled by Hilly Holbrook. In scenes both heartbreaking and hilarious, Chastain is tremendous and clearly establishes herself as another important actress to watch in the years to come.
Bryce Dallas Howard is wickedly cruel as the ringleader of sorts for all the Jackson community women and she brings a zealousness to Hilly that is unsettling and necessary. Other performances are solid as well, including Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s increasingly senile mother, Ahna O’Reilly as a young wife and mother completely ill equipped to handle her responsibilities while attempting to keep up with the Joneses at the same time, Alison Janney shares a few nice moments with Skeeter, and Cicely Tyson and Aunjanue Ellis shine in two moving scenes as maids whose livelihoods are called into question, seemingly without warning.
One of the loudest complaints about “The Help” is how “safe” the story is and it is a criticism I can appreciate certainly. I will freely acknowledge that for all that it does so well, “The Help” seems to miss the mark on identifying the palpable danger which surrounded all the African-Americans in Jackson and throughout the south, not to mention the difficulties that these women and their families endured on a daily basis.
Not having read Stockett’s book, and strictly speaking in a cinematic sense, key moments of the Civil Rights Movement are dangerously underplayed. The assassinations of Medgar Evers and Robert F. Kennedy, for example, are reduced to nothing more than anecdotal footnotes. Save a scene or two where Aibileen and Minny worry and fret about the ramifications of talking to Skeeter, the film shies away from a potential number of opportunities to be galvanizing and profound. Taylor has the confidence and intuitiveness to avoid the all-too familiar “White Person’s Guilt” trappings that other films have blindsided us with in the past. Thankfully, “The Help” finds a voice all its own.
The mocking and/or criticizing of “The Help” for not being the loud and defiant voice that it should have been, or could have been, is noted. And frankly, if the argument emanates from African-American circles, I will listen. To me though, “The Help” never felt like a film that wanted to change the world and rectify past atrocities. While it could be so much more than it ultimately is, “The Help” is still one impressive film.