If you’re one of the people that was proud to see America elect it’s first African-American President in the last election, join the club. But if you’re wondering why it took so damn long, remember that it wasn’t very long ago that racism was the accepted way of life in the U.S. of A. The Help shines a light on a period of our history that is at once shameful and uplifting. It’s a light that shows the beauty of 1960s America, but also turns up a mess of dirt too many people tried to sweep under the rug. Oh, and did I mention that it’s also laugh-out-loud funny?
Poor little Eugenia Phelan. Graduated from college without a man. Can you imagine? Well, in 1962 that was a real disappointment to your family, especially if you’re from Jackson, Mississippi. So when Eugenia, or Skeeter, decides to head out to find a J.O.B., you can best believe her momma is hoping she’ll soon wrap up that M.R.S. degree right quick. But when Skeeter agrees to take over a local newspaper article on household tips she gets a peek at the life of “the help”; the maids, cooks, nannys and other domestics that keep Jackson running like a fine oiled machine. A peek she’s determined to share with the world, with the help of a few maids willing to share their stories.
Emma Stone (Easy A) continues her path to A-list stardom with her portrayal of Skeeter Phelan. Those huge eyes of hers can open in total innocence, well up with tears of sorrow and indignation, or narrow with shrewd insight. Bryce Dallas Howard (Spider-Man 3) as Hilly Holbrook is absolutely boo-hiss evil in her determination to keep things “separate, but equal. Always equal!” But even though Hilly is the brunt of the movie’s ire, Howard takes a flat-out baddie and gives a performance with real depth. But when it comes to in-depth performances, two particularly stand out in this crowd of talent. Octavia Spencer’s Minnie Jackson is a woman who has had enough and snaps, someone who has had too much done to her to begin to trust anyone. When she takes a job working for someone who treats her as an equal, you feel every bit of her fear and confusion. Viola Davis (Eat Pray Love), as Aibileen Clark, Skeeter Phelan’s co-writer/co-conspirator, runs the gamut of emotions in this film, and delivers a performance that is sure to turn the heads of the Academy. Aibileen is a woman who has raised children as a maid, only to see them grow from sweet, accepting children to staunch advocates of Jim Crow. The weariness and frustration shows in all she does, covered by a thin layer of polish that is slowly fading with every new day. It’s true that Stone gives life and breath to Skeeter, but Davis is the one you can’t take your eyes off of.
Side stories in The Help are just as engaging as the central one. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, Tree of Life), is the new floozy in town, but she has a heart of gold under that peroxide, and she forms a bond with Minnie that “isn’t done” in Mississippi, but is a welcome look at how an outsider in those times might have seen things. Missus Walters, the borderline senile mother of Hilly, has some growing pains when she moves into her daughter’s home. Sissy Spacek plays Missus Walters with so much obvious enjoyment she practically levitates, and definitely steals any scene she’s in.
Director/Screenwriter Tate Taylor takes the words of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel and turns them into a fantastic screenplay, full of honest sounding dialogue. Taylor also does an excellent job of slipping real history into The Help. We watch and listen along with the characters as they receive news of assassinations and riots, and it reminds viewers exactly how dangerous this funny little story could have been back then.The soundtrack is a basket full of memory lane, with “(You’ve Got) Personality”, by Lloyd Price, “Sherry”, by Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons, and, of course, “Jackson”, by Johnny Cash and June Carter. The song that sums up the movie is The Orlon’s dance-craze song of the early 60s, The Wa-Watusi, a song white kids in Jackson listened to without giving it’s origins a thought. To quote Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, “you can do the Watusi, but we are the Watusi”.
The Help takes up where Mad Men left off; the serious problem of racism in America’s south in the 1960s. It was a time of great upheaval, with “one step forward, two steps back” the norm for years. The Help doesn’t select bits and pieces for your enjoyment, it let you have it all, ready or not. And in doing so it becomes not only a must-see film, but a story you’ll remember long after the credits roll.