When most think about the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks come to mind. But there’s always someone thinking outside the square trying to get another viewpoint; another opinion. That’s where Kathryn Stockett comes in with her 2009 fictional novel-turned-film The Help. Yes, that’s right, fictional. While a court case against Stockett unsuccessfully claimed that the author did use the names and images of living persons without permission, one shouldn’t let the legality of the matter detract from this gripping and emotive tale of African-American empowerment amongst discriminatory white housewives and their underprivileged ‘coloured’ housemaids.
After returning from College, aspiring journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone; Easy A) is appalled by what her Mississippi hometown has become. Her mother (Allison Janney; Juno) has cancer, and her friends have changed into a prejudiced and snide bunch. Seeing the struggles of the African-American maids that run the households on less than minimum wage, Skeeter decides to publish their personal stories anonymously in a bid to draw attention to the rampant racism that so casually exists within society. Of course, convincing maids like Aibileen (a compassionate Viola Davis; Doubt) and Minnie (a candid Octavia Spencer; Dinner for Schmucks) to spill the beans isn’t easy, as speaking out against their intolerant white employers is putting their livelihoods at risk. Then again, we see that nothing in this time was easy, as activists fighting for the cause mysteriously die and the divide in Mississippi is shown through simple displeasures like concerns over installing ‘coloured’ toilets in residential homes. As she becomes more invested –and disgusted – by what she learns from the maids, Skeeter loses touch with friends like Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard; Hereafter), who have no intention of attempting to question the stigmas around them.
In his sophomore feature, Tate Taylor’s film isn’t heavy on preaching, nor is it overloaded with saccharine sentiment. Rather, it has a real bite to it — with feisty characters you care about or love to hate, as well as emotion that truly pulls you in with its raw underlying power. The casting is spotless; Stone is confident as Skeeter, while Davis and Spencer present solidarity in trying to make a stand. But it’s the subplot concerning Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly and Jessica Chastain’s outsider Celia that gives the biggest surprise. While it steers us away sporadically (a tad unnecessary in the bigger picture), the characters themselves are the most animated in totally different extremes; Howard and Chastain relish being the bitch and the kooky housewife respectively.
Perhaps more laudable than Taylor’s direction of the awardable ensemble is his handle on Stockett’s awarded story, which despite playing out over 146-minutes of film, weaves its way towards an inspiring climax with unbroken verve. Credit must also go to composer Thomas Newman, whose sweet score does well to accompany the more dramatic moments without engulfing the scene. With more and more films being based on true stories, it’s almost hard to believe The Help is not one of them. But it could be. This feel-good story is a knockout – a much more emotionally satisfying and meaningful watch than last year’s sugary Eat Pray Love.