Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Help

This morning I saw The Help, starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone.

I'll confess, I haven't read the book, but what I saw today certainly impressed me.

It's the early 60s and Skeeter (Stone), a recent Ole Miss grad, returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi to launch her career as a writer. Assigned to write responses for a cleaning column (something she knows nothing about) she turns to 'the help' for help. Her friend's maid Aibileen (Davis) graciously agrees to provide her with correct answers for the column, and once they begin talking, Skeeter realizes she could write a much more interesting story. Her idea is to interview Aibileen and other black maids in town to tell about their lives from their perspective.

After much persuasion, Aibileen begins sharing her history in secret meetings with Skeeter. The talks go well, but Skeeter's editor wants more material to make a complete book. Trouble is, the maids in town are so scared of losing their jobs—or worse, their lives—that they choose to remain silent.

A number of awful, racist things happen in Jackson. Town bitch Hilly, played marvelously by Bryce Dallas Howard, wants all the colored people to have their own toilets. Because she holds so much respect among the Junior League, the other white housewives blindly follow her lead and begin installing their own separate toilets.

Shortly thereafter, civil rights leader Medgar Evars is gunned down in his own front yard, and all of the maids band together to tell their stories. They've reached the end of their tether.

Octavia Spencer as Minny is especially entertaining, her stature and strength reminiscent of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, who is coincidentally referenced in the film. But all of the maids are convincing in their individual degrees of conviction, just as the white-people-who-don't-realize-their-racist also seem authentic.

The film is peppered with various notable supporting performances: Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney and Nelsan Ellis all seamlessly blend in to the landscape and add just enough spark to make us remember them. Also fabulous is Jessica Chastain as Jackson's token outcast, Celia.

Really, there are no bad performances in this film, and with the exception of the length (at least half an hour could've been shaved off), this is a very satisfying, if not somewhat sad, snapshot of life in the South not so long ago.

Oscar season, here we come.

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