I haven’t read the best selling book the movie The Help is based on. Nor have I paid much attention to the controversy about a White central character telling the story of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi. I can only judge the movie by what appears on screen.
You get the sense the audience is being manipulated. This is where you’re supposed to laugh; this is where you should cry. It feels like a paint by numbers movie lesson about the ills of racism that comes across as a bit shallow and sunny despite the subject matter. There is a moment in the film where you see a newspaper headline about the Freedom Riders who were pioneers in the civil rights movement. If you’ve seen the powerful and unforgettable PBS documentary about these real life heroes, The Help will come across as a flimsy and pale attempt at depicting a complex and disturbing issue that still reverberates today.
What the movie does have going for it are the strong performances of the mainly female cast. Emma Stone is earnest and full of luminous spunk as Skeeter Phelan the author of these women’s tales. Viola Davis is understated and deeply touching as Aibileen, the first maid to open up to Skeeter about what it’s like to serve in a White household. Octavia Spencer in a standout role as Minny Jackson is funny and fierce as the maid abused by both her husband and employer Hilly Holbrook. Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly conveys the essence of a cold heart wrapped in femininity to perfection. Jessica Chastain takes her character, Celia Foote the girl from the wrong side of the tracks and imbues her desire to be accepted with both sweetness and pain. Cicely Tyson is unforgettably moving in her flashback scenes as Constantine the Phelan family’s lifelong maid and Skeeter’s surrogate mother.
The Help is designed to be a crowd pleaser that leaves the audience saying can you believe how these people used to behave in the South and that’s the problem because segregation and discrimination were not only problems confined to the South. And, although we’ve come a long way since 1963, I couldn’t fail to note that many in the audience where I watched the film have Black nannies raising their children. The movie is just a little too satisfied with itself and I don’t think we’re ready to be patting ourselves on the back just yet.