Run to the theater and see The Help. This adaptation of the best-selling novel is a total gem and it is likely to be “gold” at both the box office and in the Academy Award nominations.
The Help (Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney) – When I left to see The Help, I didn’t expect to see the best movie of the year (through Sept. 15), but that is exactly what it is. What a lovely surprise and beautiful movie. Each of the principal actresses … and make no mistake about it, this is a true chicks’ flick … could land Oscar nominations. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as the maids, Aibileen Clark and Minnie Jackson, should be shoe-ins for nominations as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. They carry the movie in a way that few women do. Davis got nominated for her unforgettable, if terribly short, two-scene turn in Doubt. She is the top African American actress in America today and, perhaps, the finest actress of the 40-somethings in Hollywood. Cast as older than her years in almost every memorable movie, she wears agony on her face like a badge. Riveting and gorgeous in real life, she looks like Alfre Woodard and is versatile like Meryl Streep.
As Aibileen, she knows her place in 1960s’ Jackson, Mississippi, where she raises the daughter of her white employer, takes care of their house, cooks, and is treated like a slave (who ever said the Civil War ended in 1865?). She is subservient but smart, writing in her diary every night for at least an hour. She watches lives pass in an unfair world where her only consolation is watching her “babies” (and she has raised many of them) grow and prosper, teaching them that they are “kind, smart, and important.” Her best friend, Minnie, is a more stereotypical character, full of bluster and anger but warmhearted, funny, and cunning. Spencer is one of those actresses you’ll recognize immediately but this is a primo role that she milks in a scene-stealing performance. Minnie is fired after being unfairly accused of stealing by the president of the Junior League, Hilly Holbrook. Played by Bryce Dallas Howard (yes, she is Ron Howard’s daughter but might finally lose that defining label after this ruthless performance), Hilly is the leader of the Stepford-like wives who masquerade as socialites in the upper class suburbs of Jackson. It is amazing watching the Junior League raise money earnestly for children in Africa while they treat their African-American maids (“The Help”) with little to no respect at all. This is the irony Kathryn Stockett details in her best-selling novel and that is translated to the screen by screenwriter/director Tate Taylor.
Interestingly, Aibileen is not the primary protagonist of the story. That is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone, most recently of Crazy, Stupid, Love.), a white, recent college grad who grew up in Jackson, gets a job at the local newspaper, and has just joined the Junior League. Skeeter is no wallflower. She is worldly and sassy, realizing that her own socialite mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), didn’t really raise her. Her maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson in a cameo) did. Skeeter loved Constantine and vice versa, but the maid disappeared one day without explanation and her folks aren’t talking about why or how. Skeeter wants to be a novelist or, at the very least, a real journalist. But her job at the newspaper is to take over the household hints column. But Skeeter knows nothing about cooking, cleaning or taking care of a house so she asks Aibileen if she will help her. That leads to more serious conversations about how “the help” is treated, what they see, and what the ugly underbelly of Jackson is like.
As we watch the fake lives of the society women and the all-too-real existence of the “the help,” the contrasts are drawn. As an audience, we’re appalled. As maids, the women are merely resigned. Pushed by Skeeter’s desire to tell the story of the maids from their perspective, Aibileen reluctantly shares her stories. Then so does Minnie. Skeeter pitches her story to an editor in New York (played by Mary Steenburgen), who isn’t much interested early on but eventually sees the potential in it if Skeeter can coax more of “the help” to share. Will these resigned women tell their story or play it safe and keep their jobs? That is the essence of the story and the metaphor for the entire Civil Rights movement.
I can’t imagine how Taylor could have told this story better. I did not read the book yet I wasn’t bored or lost at all in this almost two-and-a-half hour movie. Julie read the book and thought it was a very faithful adaptation. Yes, this is a film for women and for African-Americans. But as importantly, it is a movie for all of us who lived through the era following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King, the Kennedy Assassination, and the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964. The Help is one of the most important movies in years so don’t miss it.