Directed by Tate Taylor. Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer.
Set in the 60s about a refined form of slavery in America, The Help delivers a powerfully moving story about sacrifice, hypocrisy and poetic justice.
Even though slavery was officially abolished in the US in 1865, a milder form of it persisted in the form of ‘coloured’ help to do the chores in the house, the cleaning, the cooking and all of the dirty work ‘white folk’ thought was beneath them, including taking care of their kids.
Aibileen (Viola Davis) is one such maid and her friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) is another; both are the primary voices of the film. Their lives as maids in the backward state of Mississippi, their dreams dashed, their self-respect beaten down but not dead, all form the crux of this story. Emma Stone is Skeeter, an aspiring journalist who needs Aibileen’s help to write a home hygiene column in a newspaper she’s just joined. But Skeeter soon realises that home hygiene isn’t the only mess these maids have to deal with. The novelist in her coupled with a sympathetic and forward-thinking bent of mind makes her reach out to these women and asks them to tell her their stories.
Allison Janney as Skeeter’s ailing mom Charlotte plays an interesting character. She must keep up with appearances and society’s diktat that ‘coloured’ people should be treated just so and not more. Her daughter’s sympathetic attitude becomes a thorn in her side but the thorn in her heart eventually becomes too much to bear and hers is truly an inspiring metamorphoses.
Viola Davis has put up such a fine performance, understated but intense, using her evocative eyes and powerful presence to show us how these powerful women had to hide their passions and hopes and had to deal with a life of subservience. Octavia Spencer as the firecracker maid whose bark is sometimes comparable to her bite is the ‘smile’ of the movie. She adds that element of humour in adversity. Emma Stone isn’t the hero of the film but the vehicle she plays is eloquent and sometimes just as troubled as the maids that she seeks to write about.
The Help, based on a book, isn’t a true story (as you’ll see from the lack of ‘true credits’ at the end) but it does give you an idea of the mores of the time and hypocrisy of its society through women like the super bitch Hilly Holbrook (wonderfully essayed by Bryce Dallas Howard). The film is a bit long and you may find the story a bit simplistic but the powerful acting and the touching, humorous stories within the film will amply make up for that.