Help, The (2011): Tate Taylor’s Dramedy, Starring Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer in Oscar-Winning Performance

Though structurally messy and visually shapeless, “The Help” deserves to be seen due to its subject, an interracial serio comedy, and thematic concerns, exploring the positions of black housekeepers in the Deep South.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=44148

Based on the critically acclaimed best-selling debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is not only set in the early 1960s (circa 1963), but also feels as if it was made around that time.

Episodic to a fault, and old-fashioned in execution, “The Help” boasts an illustrious, largely female cast, including Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, and best of all Octavia Spencer, who steals every scene, and with some justice, should get a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her outstanding performance.

The Help
Two black maids standing, beside two white women on a bench. Against a bright yellow background, the text in light purple.

Theatrical release poster

For those who complain that there are no meaty roles for women in mainstream Hollywood picture, “The Help” is the answer offering a dozen well-written roles for both white and black actresses.

In fact, the large female cast, and the tone of the film often makes “The Help” seem like a companion piece to “Steel Magnolias,” rather than to a poignant exploration of the plight of black women in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement.

As written for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” is sharply uneven, vacillating between poignant and serious moments to some that are trivial and overtly comedic in their eagerness to please.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, “The Help” chronicles the relationship between three different and extraordinary women who develop an unusual camaraderie, based on a secret that involves the research and writing of a risky book (by standards of the time) whose publication might not violate and break social norms and cultural taboos but might have dangerous impact on the participants.

Though going out of its way to present a balanced portraiture and a balanced perspective, ultimately, “The Help” looks at its subject—and protagonists—from a white POV.

The ever-likeable Emma Thomas plays the lead, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a bright, inquisitive woman, who’s just graduated from Ole Miss and is intent on getting a job as a writer.

Skeeter is something of an outsider, if not an outcast. Unlike most of the girls she grew up with in Jackson, Mississippi, she is more open-minded and more socially conscious.  Deviating from the values of the times, she wants to have a professional career and is reluctant to settle into passive domesticity.

Her plan to put marriage, family, and children on hold until she gets established as a journalist with an independent life (and income) immediately places her in conflict with her best friends (some of whom are already married) and especially her mother (Allison Janney), who makes no secret of her constant consternation.

When she lands a job writing the Miss Myrna cleaning-hints column for the local newspaper, she seeks help from Aibileen (Viola Davis), her best friend’s maid, who’s at first hesitant and reluctant to collaborate.

Most of the narrative deals with various aspects of Skeeter’s embarking on a clandestine project, spurred on by a greedy book editor (Mary Steenbergen) in New York and inspired by the varied and moving stories she uncovers in the process of her research.

Of the black characters, Aibileen Clark is the most significant.  It’s through her eyes and occasionally voice-over narration and flashbacks that we see the film’s events unfold.  Aibileen also serves as the link between the characters and is instrumental in getting Skeeter other maids to be interviewed, prime among them is Minny (Octavia Spencer).

We learn that Aibileen has been a housekeeper all her life, working in white homes of Jackson, where she has raised 17 children for her white employers.  Her one son was tragically and unnecessarily killed in an accident, from which she has never really recovered.  Whenever she’s asked, “how does it feel to raise a child who is not one of your own?” she glances at the photo of the boy which is prominently placed on the wall.  Saddened by the loss of her only child, Aibileen draws strength from both her faith and her best friend Minny.

With courage and dignity, Aibileen fulfills her duties as the Leefolt family’s maid, including taking care of their little girl, Mae Mobley (who relates to her as a mom).  When Skeeter enters her life, Aibileen opens herself up, telling her stories for the first time ever, even though her act has the risk of retaliation.

Undoubtedly, the yarn’s most colorful and gutsy character is the outspoken Minny Jackson, a 33-year-old housekeeper who has a reputation as the best cook in Mississippi; there’s a wonderfully joyous scene in which she makes fried chicken, her specialty, while praising the marvels of Crisco.

Minny works for Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the closest that the tale has for a villainous, a closed-minded, biased, bossy woman.  When Minny plays a nasty tricks on her (making a special chocolate pie for her that contains the maid’s s—it), Hilly becomes the laughing stock of the entire community, including her own mother.

Minny’s act of defiance, which has wonderfully comic reverberations, costs her her job.  Having been fired, she travels to the outskirts of Jackson to work for lonely, fish-out-of-water Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, who can be seen right now to an advantage in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, as Brad Pitt’s loving wife).  As sluttish, white-trash femme, who gets knocked up several times, Chastain gives a broad performance but she hits her marks, and it’s hard not to notice the pink and red costumes that have been designed for her, often calling too much attention to her voluptuous figure.

Commercial Success

A sizable commercial hit, The Help, made on a budget $25 million, earned $216.6 million at the box-office

 

Credits:

Directed, written by Tate Taylor
Screenplay based on The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Produced by Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, Brunson Green

Cinematography Stephen Goldblatt
Edited by Hughes Winborne
Music by Thomas Newman

Production companies: DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Participant Media, and others
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios
Release date: August 10, 2011 (US)

Running time: 146 minutes

Budget $25 million
Box office $216.6 million