By theredraylives | February 26, 2012
dir. Tate Taylor
Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard
Four out of Five Stars
The Help is a rich and deeply-layered film that is funny, poignant, and meaningful… even if it is historically inaccurate in parts (in researching this review this reviewer learned the book and the film have quite a few detractors, most of them either railing against “stereotypical characters” or against historical inaccuracy). Then again, the film is fiction, not based on a true story, so liberties are to be expected. I think that calling any of the characters in the film stereotypical is being intellectually dishonest- there is far more to them than the surface would suggest, and there are so many deep and engaging performances in the film to flesh out the characters. Exact historical fact though it may not be, racism did exist in the American south in the sixties, and when Tate Taylor says, “For me, the most horrific moment in the film is the scene where the maid is sitting with her panties round her ankles in a three-by-three plywood bathroom, like a cat in a litter-box, while an impatient white woman is tapping her foot outside,” he is absolutely correct. The film is mixed with a myriad of wonderful performances, and while it is no masterpiece, some of the scenes remain long after the film has ended.
The film centers around Skeeter (Emma Stone), just graduated from college, who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi to find a career as a writer. To get noticed, she wants to get something published, so an editor tells her to write about something that troubles her. What troubles Skeeter is the treatment of black maids, working for white families in the very segregated American south. The first maid to agree to speak to her is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who is reluctant, and they are unable to bring others around to their cause. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights movement begins to pick up steam in America, and as the story progresses more and more come forward. Fighting against the prevailing racism of the time (embodied most of all in Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook), the characters each learn how to find their own courage, which is ultimately what this film is truly about.
And these characters have courage, and they have it in spades. Skeeter and Aibileen fear to step forward for their own reasons, but by the end they find a common courage and form a strong bond in working to right the terrible inequalities all around them. This is felt most in the fantastic performances of all of the actors. Emma Stone is excellent as Skeeter, though as the audience’s vessel she stares in shock or is horrified by what is going on around her just a little too much (which attempts to convey that directly to the audience). Some of them are genuine, but some are monumentally overdone, and this hurts the film, as the audience doesn’t need a surrogate to convey what’s going on. Still, hers is a strong performance among an excellent cast.
The real kudos here go to, of course, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who are absolutely magnificent as Aibileen and Minnie Jackson respectively (both are favored to win Oscars, with Spencer already snapping up a Golden Globe and both of them nabbing SAG awards). They infuse so much humanity and strength into their characters and it is a shame that some critics consider them stereotypical. As black maids they have a certain mannerism, of course, but these two brilliant actors have created performances here that transcend stereotypes and turn them into beautiful, courageous women. Spencer in particular steals every scene she is in, and provides much of the film’s humor as well. But the performance to speak of here is absolutely that of Davis, whose Aibileen exudes power every second she is on the screen. Quite honestly Davis is heartbreaking in the role, and nails it every single step of the way.
The supporting cast is equally excellent, from the aforementioned Bryce Dallas Howard (one character that I’ll yield to the ‘stereotype’ critics, because she is at times way over the top) to Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, and an amazing performance by Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, herself an outcast who finds a friend in Minnie. Also thoroughly enjoyable is Sissy Spacek as Hilly Holbrook’s mother Missus Walters, another of the film’s comedic bright spots. One of the most impactful performances on the film- in terms of its power and its meaning- is that of Cicely Tyson as Constantine Jefferson, Skeeter’s childhood maid who has “gone home” just before Skeeter returns home from college. The real moment that left this reviewer breathless comes when the audience finally learns what happened to Constantine- Janney and Tyson are both perfect in this scene, and it is absolutely heartbreaking. They capture every single feeling without saying a word (Janney and Tyson both delivered awards-worthy performances in this scene and the rest of the film, but sadly saw little buzz).
The Help is poised to clean up on Oscar night, particularly for the performances, but it could end up taking home the big trophy as well (though no nominations for its screenplay or for director Tate Taylor will not do it any favors- not being the best picture of the year doesn’t do it either). Ultimately the film is not perfect- it is flawed and misses the point sometimes, particularly with Stone’s character, though one suspects the blame for this lies more with Taylor’s direction and with the screenplay. It doesn’t render everything in black and white- again, reasons why the critics who cry stereotype are missing the entire point. But these characters embody so much strength that their performances are impossible to miss. Four out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
You can check out the trailer if you so desire, but its tone is absurd and attempts to play the film off as a goofy comedy. Please check out this and other reviews over at my examiner.com page. Want to become my fanboy/girl? You can follow me on Twitter or book my face, and you can subscribe to my reviews. In just about six hours I’ll be live-blogging the Oscars right here on Black Entertainment USA… please join me! “Sister, I don’t know if you and me are on the same side. I’ll be standing with my son and those who are good with my son. It’d be nice to see you there. “