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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 12, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 32
The Help tells the right story
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The Help tells the right story

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Help
Opening August 12


Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone) has just returned home to Jackson after graduating with a journalism degree from Ole Miss. She quickly gets a job at the local paper writing a domestic advice column while also trying to get back in the good graces of old friends like societal queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).

But things don't go smoothly. Her mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) is battling cancer while also mysteriously dismissing their trusted maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson), a woman who for all intents and purposes raised Skeeter and gave her the drive to become her own empowered woman. She's also aghast by Hilly's transformation and becomes so obsessed with keeping the societal and racial status quo that she's now urging all her friends to build separate bathrooms for their maids under the pretense of public safety and keeping their children safe from disease.

Skeeter comes up with an idea. With the urging of New York publishing magnate Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen) she will write a book from the perspective of 'the help,' the unprivileged and downtrodden black maids who clean her friends' houses, prepare their dinners, and raise their children. It's dangerous and it's against the law, but the young writer is determined. What's more, longtime maids Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) have reached their wits' end and have decided to assist her, and the three of them put their lives at stake in order to reveal truths the privileged white elite never imagined would someday be revealed.

Set right at the start of the Civil Rights movement and taking place in the hotbed of ferocious racial animosity that is Mississippi, The Help is a remarkably confident and sensationally acted melodrama that never loses sight of who its main characters are and the real story it wants to tell. Skeeter may be the protagonist who gets the ball rolling, but the tale being spun isn't hers. It is instead that of Aibileen and Minny, the raging heart and soul of the piece.

I haven't read Kathryn Stockett's beloved novel, but I can only assume that she has to be pleased with screenwriter and director Tate Taylor's (Pretty Ugly People) borderline astonishing adaptation. While not everything is perfect, and while some sequences (most notably the flashbacks) do tend to go in an overly melodramatic direction, the majority of the film is admittedly stunning. The central dynamic between Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter rings with a truthful poignancy that hit me right in the throat, and while I wasn't drowning in my own tears, I reached for the Kleenex on a couple of occasions.

It helps that the acting is universally stunning. Davis and Spencer will get most of the accolades, deservedly so, but Howard, Janney, Sissy Spacek (playing Hilly's flighty yet feisty mother), and especially Jessica Chastain (playing a societal outcast who under Minny's guidance discovers a fortitude she didn't know existed) are equally amazing. Even when the script drips into schmaltzy platitude, all of them rise to such heights they make even the most saccharine of emotional outbursts feel genuine. They collectively drive this film's engine, and as ensembles go this is the best one I'm likely to see assembled in all of 2011.

But the reason The Help ultimately becomes something extraordinary, the reason it is likely to become an audience sensation and factor into the year-end awards season, is that Taylor never loses sight that Aibileen is his central heroine and not Skeeter. While the latter is important, it is the former whose corner we must always be in. It is her journey, her saga, her dream of a better life (and of hopefully having a hand in obtaining one for future generations) that makes the movie what it is.

Unlike so many other pictures that have tackled these types of stories, this one remembers that the African American experience in the South during the Civil Rights movement is one that should be seen through African American eyes. But at the same time, Taylor also remembers that not every indignity has an audience-friendly resolution, that just because we want a woman to rise up and put another in their place doesn't mean they are going to do it. There are nuances to every story and not every backbone gets rigid and becomes unbreakable when faced with opposition; for every story of triumph, there are countless more failures that only a generational sea change can fix.

I could go on, waxing poetic about everything from Thomas Newman's (The Adjustment Bureau) score, to Stephen Goldblatt's (Charlie Wilson's War) cinematography, to Mark Ricker's (Conviction) editing, to Sharen Davis' (The Book of Eli) costume design, but the bottom line is that The Help speaks better for itself than I ever could on its behalf. Taylor has instantly cemented himself as a director of merit and one deserving of keeping an eye on, delivering the type of big, star-driven Hollywood production that's as intelligent and as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.

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