There are probably few books that hold more significance not only in the hearts of its fans but also in subject matter than “The Help.” Written by Kathryn Stockett in 2009, the book has spent more than 100 weeks on best-seller lists and has fans the world over. Now, writer-director Tate Taylor is bringing this important story to the big screen with help from DreamWorks and Touchstone Pictures.
“The Help” — which is set in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s — follows Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged African-American maid who has spent her life raising the white children of those she works for, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), an African-American maid whose temper and outspoken nature have cost her many a job, and other members of the African-American community that serve the white socialites of the community. When a young white writer named Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) moves home after graduating from the University of Mississippi and finds out that her beloved childhood nanny and maid is no longer working at her parents’ house, she is distraught.
When she re-enters the circle of debutante women that she calls friends, she notices the way they treat their maids and she doesn’t think it’s right. The leader — and far worst of the group — is Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who talks openly about a clear separation of the races and bullies her friends into building separate bathrooms outside for the help. Minny is fired from her job working for Hilly because during a rainstorm Hilly’s mother (Sissy Spacek) gives her permission to use the indoor “whites only” bathroom. Minny then finds an employer in the new girl in town, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is far less snooty and nowhere near as prejudiced the locals. Minny begins to train Celia on how to cook for her new husband, Johnny (Mike Vogel), and how interracial mingling is handled in Jackson.
When Skeeter gets the idea to write a book from the prospective of the help, it arouses interest in New York publisher Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who previously had turned her down for a job due to “lack of experience.” Now, Skeeter has a story and must find maids to interview. It is hard at first, but after brutality towards African-Americans erupts, Aibileen reluctantly agrees to be interviewed and so starts the uncovering of honest facts of how the help is treated in the homes of their employers. As more and more women come forth to be interviewed, what started off as a simple idea becomes a revolution of truth. After the book is released, all hell breaks loose as the townsfolk of Jackson start reading the book and finding similarities to their own lives. Can this book make a difference in the dawn of the civil rights era when racial tension is at its peak?
When I first heard that director Tate Taylor and author Kathryn Stockett were childhood friends, and that Taylor was the first to read the manuscript and then bought the rights to the movie even before the book was published, I was a little worried. My thoughts were that he had to make it because he had the rights; but after seeing the film, I can tell that being from the South, he had the experience and proximity to really appreciate and understand the subject matter that is handled so carefully in the film. While the movie is filled with larger than life personalities, it never treats them like caricatures.
While Skeeter may seem like the heroine of the film, it is actually the brave women who put their lives on the line to tell their stories in a time and location where it was forbidden to speak against your white employer. Emma Stone does beautiful work as an open-minded white woman who cares less about finding a husband and settling down over making a name for herself and starting on her writing career. Aibileen and Minny, played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, are the highlights of the film for me. Aibileen’s strength and emotional power shines through every minute of her performance. Minny, on the other hand, is strong-willed and outspoken and we love her. She brings so much comedy to the movie just by being herself.
Although Spencer has been acting since the ’90s, this is the break-out role that she will be remembered for and truly deserves it. There are so many great supporting roles in this film that I can’t talk about them all, but standouts include Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek and Nelson Ellis. And all I will say about Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance is that she obviously did her job well because you hate her with a vengeance.
The beautiful southern scenery, costumes, locations and accents all embody the soul of that era and transport you to that time. I rarely even remember thinking this is a period piece while watching the film because I was so enraptured in the story. Taylor takes a beautiful book and imbues the movie with the culture and richness of emotions found in the book and does his life-long friend proud.
I could keep going through the movie and talking about all of the aspects I found truly moving and entertaining but I will leave that for you to discover when you see the film, and you must see this film. The story and lessons of morality and fairness will touch your heart and warm your spirit. I recommend this film to everyone and I think fans of the book will be mighty pleased, too.
“The Help,” rated PG-13 for thematic material, opens in theaters Aug. 10.
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