The Help

I’m smart.

I’m kind.

I’m important…

While the above might be a statement of self-empowerment, we hear this said by actress Viola Davis‘ character, Aibileen Clark, very early on in the new film The Help. Davis plays a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1963. She is the daughter of a maid, and a grand-daughter of a house slave. As she tells us during an interview with ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, “Yes – I always knew I would be a maid.”

Aibileen’s words at the top of this review were said to her youngest charge, a bright 3 year blond girl who is the daughter of Clark’s employer. Aibileen has raised 17 white children for her employers. But while this career has provided her with a job, and put food on her table, and brought the rewards of child rearing to her – this career was never going to be anyone’s idea of a dream job.

The film was directed by Tate Taylor who also wrote the screenplay, adopting the best-selling novel, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Both Stockett and Taylor grew up in Jackson so this was a film based on their hometown, a place they both knew very well.

The girls at play while the help did the work of running the household

To set the film up – the time of the story was before President Johnson signed into law The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone is a recent graduate of Ole Miss, and more than anything else, she wants to be a writer. Her circle of friends are all bridge playing housewives who have opted to spend their days playing cards, shopping, gossiping, and turning over the raising of the their children, and the running of their households to ‘the help’.

Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark

 The film takes as its format – that Skeeter wanted to talk to a housemaid to get some help about the kitchen column she had been assigned to do at the Jackson newspaper. But the more she spoke to Aibileen the more she realized that Aibileen had something both more topical and more serious than topics about cooking and cleaning. Only Aibileen wasn’t about to put her livelihood at risk by talking about her employer.

Emma Stone as Skeeter Phelan

Only she couldn’t keep it in. And once the stories of the slights, the insults, the exploitation, and the abuses started to come forth, it was like a dam had broken. Soon, more maids lined up to be interviewed and then  still more. By the time Skeeter was done, and her New York publisher had launched her book – the town of Jackson, Mississippi, and its venerated domestic help situation would never be the same again.

Dallas Bryce Howard as Hilly Holbrook

Octavia Spencer as Minnie Jackson

I thought the film was terrific. It was thoughtful, provocative, empathetic, sympathetic, funny, serious, and meaningful. A good number of very fine actresses took on their roles and ran with them. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you will feel a whole raft of emotions as this film plays out before you. You will especially appreciate the work of Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Dallas Bryce Howard, and Jessica Chastain.

Oh there’s been some negative press but in my opinion these criticism don’t mean a whole lot. For example some have said that the film wasn’t severe enough in showing how difficult life was for the blacks in those days. Meaning that the real life plight was even worse than how it was portrayed in the film. I understand that – but isn’t that a whole different movie? This is not a documentary about how Civil Rights came into being. This is not a film about Jim Crow, the KKK, or even the violent times that actually happened. This is a smaller story – not a history book.

Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote

The second main criticism is that this story about the plight of the help was filtered through the actions and thoughts of a white character. Ok it was. So what? If the author had been black instead of white, would the story been any different? Isn’t the point of the film about the plight of one group at the hands of another? What difference does it make about who tells the story. So I totally disregard that criticism as well.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that people griped about how the film wasn’t as good as the book, or that many parts of the book were skipped, or left out, or simple glossed over. Probably this is true. Again – so what? This is a two-hour film, not a 12 hour TV series.

As the film’s tag-line is: Change Begins with a Whisper, I think we can already begin to hear what the Academy voters are saying to one another. I do think we are going to see some Oscars come to this film next year. I really do. Beyond that, and without a doubt,  I also think this film is smart, and kind, and very important.

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