Having seen the trailer for The Help, I went into the cinema with two expectations. The first was that I was entering the auditorium to view an excellent film. The second was that I would leave thoroughly moved and uplifted by a promised “feel-good” ending. My first prediction was spot on, but as for the latter: I missed the apple but hit the tree.
Set in early 1960s Mississippi, The Help is based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about an aspiring writer, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, who sets out to write a book from the point of view of the help, giving a voice to the black women who are servants and effectively mothers to the white children of wealthy southern belles and yet are forbidden from so much as using the bathroom. It is an impressive film debut for Tate Taylor, who not only directed the project but took on the daunting task of adapting the acclaimed novel into a screenplay. It ticks the two boxes of any quality comedy/drama: the laughs are genuine and the tears equally real.
Although the film does portray the harrowing mistreatment these women endured to a fair extent, one does get the impression that some aspects of the despicable endurances are glossed over a tad. That’s not to say, however, the film is not rich in depth and at times scathing in its social commentary. In fact, as opposed to shying away from hot button issues, it could be said The Help attempts to cover a brave amount. Although the suppression of black maids is the prominent theme, the film also offers insight into the constraints of being a woman generally in that time. Skeeter, played convincingly and endearingly by Easy A’s Emma Stone, is keen on pursuing an ambition of being a writer instead of getting married to a fine southern gentleman, much to the horror of her mother, played by Juno’s Allison Janney. And there are subplots that touch on both societies coercion of women to become mothers and conversely, the mothers using their children as fashion accessories – two themes that still are more than relevant today.
In 1939 Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actress to ever win an academy award, which she received for playing a servant. Both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer deserve to be equally rewarded, in particular the former. Davis’s performance is one of key elements that transforms The Help from a very good film into an utterly great one. From almost the very first frame she brings such emotion to the character of Aibilene, her heart-breaking past and conflict deeply touches the soul of the audience. Bryce Dallas Howard also deserves mention as the detestable Miss Hilly, who successfully walks the line between giving her character a slight element of caricature whilst never falling into the trap of comical.
But while The Help does appear at first glance to be a classic “feel good” film, there are surprising moments, in particular the ending which after leaving the audience on a triumphant high, gently brings them down to a slightly bitter reality. This may annoy some, but personally I would say it is an important reminder of a certain fact. The film and book may be fiction, but they are based on the real stories of real women.