The Help (2011)

by George Watches Things

Today, we tackle a rather tricky film to discuss. First off, I am a caucasian (do I capitalize that word?) male. I am telling you this in case there was any question, especially as we dive head-into a film about racism. I will never try to justify the horrible things that my race has done to other races (primarily and most horribly, in the United States at least, African-Americans), and I would like it to be understood that any criticisms I may have of The Help are not meant do so. Be warned, though, I will spoil the film within the following review.

For the first few minutes of The Help, I couldn’t get Gone With the Wind out of my head. It’s an interesting comparison (but don’t worry, I won’t pull another Rabbit Hole/Another Earth on you). GWTW was filmed 30 years before The Help takes place, but somehow the help in that are treated much better than the help in this film from 2011.

That’s because The Help is a film about racism (where Gone wasn’t). I’m usually weary of the race movie that’s set in 1960s’ Southland because there’s no room for thought or rebuttal. Not that there should be any doubt as to who the victims and who the perpetrators are, but I prefer films containing those themes whose main focus is something other than racism. That’s why I like Driving Miss Daisy more than most; the relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke is front and center. But try as it might, I saw past the little plot ploy of having the always-likable Emma Stone (Skeeter here) interview Aibileen and Minny (potential future Oscar-winner Viola Davis and definite future Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, respectively). But for every thing I had a problem with, there were 1.79 things I liked about The Help.

The tendency with mainstream Hollywood pictures is for every little detail to be ironed out; this is not the case with The Help. Take for example a black maid getting arrested in the street. We assume this is done because a very mean character didn’t like her talking to Stone (we’ll get to her in a little bit), but this is never explicitly stated. Also, I’m glad the film didn’t stray too much into the typical racial tension move of showing us the KKK. We feel their presence as much as we should, so we don’t really need them there.

In the film, we meet a woman who is a complete bitch; Hilly Holbrook, who is played by the no-holds-barred Bryce Dallas Howard. She’s the one who inspires (if I can say that) Skeeter to write a scathing, but perfectly true, novel about and with the assistance of The Help. I couldn’t figure out why they made her way more racist than all the other little housewives. I thought this was going to be a movie about casual racism and the way a few brave women combat it. But I realize now that Hilly being awful takes the pressure off of Octavia Spencer to deliver a flawless performance (which she does, anyway). What do I mean? I mean we have to forgive Spencer’s Minny for something terrible: baking her own feces into a pie then giving it to Hilly to eat.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe she doesn’t deserve it. But this was a very silly detail in an otherwise very serious film. The movie is comical, but I wasn’t laughing at this. In the end, we (The Academy and I) forgave Minny for her impulsive, repulsive act (how could we not?), but–come on–we watched a woman eat poop.

In 2011, we saw a lot of women on-screen (see: Bridesmaids), and The Help features a cast populated with incredible actresses. In fact, the only male with more than one speaking scene in the film is useless (yes, this is a criticism… nobody cares about Skeeter’s love life… this isn’t her story). Jessica Chastain is delightful as a Marilyn Monroe-lite housewife who could slaughter a chicken but must be coached by Minny on etiquette and family life. Spencer and Davis are both wonderful, and will definitely deserve the Oscars they will probably win (even though Kirsten Dunst should have been nominated for Best Actress). But it’s Allison Janney who steals the show for me as Skeeter’s mother, who is incredibly complicated. She does more with the limited screen time she has than any actress in 2011.

The film ends on a note that conflicted me. The humiliated, herpes-suffering Hilly pulls a classic Hilly: she convinces one of the other white housewives that Aibileen stole a piece of silver from the family, and she insists Aibileen (the only person in the household to care about baby Mae) be sacked. I’m still grappling with the ending of the movie because the evil white lady won. Yes, that’s what actually happened in history (up until a few years later), but still… after all of the triumphs the endearing characters I’d been watching for so long celebrated, we’re left with that ending? It wasn’t so much Viola Davis walking into the horizon. I was fine with that bit, since she seemed hopeful about becoming a writer (that part of the earlier plot should have been played up more, by the way). But seeing that child scream in the window for her Aibileen is tragic and horrifying.

In a way, it’s beautiful: we’re left to think about what influenced the child more… an encouraging mother (that would be Aibileen) or a meddling aunt. But in another way, it’s awful: are we to understand that no matter how hard we work, some people will always have the upper hand? What do you think?

My rating: *** (out of 4)

Random notes and amusing quotes:

  • “Shut that goddamn door.”
  • “It’s been endorsed by the White Citizen’s Council!”
  • “That’s a little too everything.”
  • “Your eggs are dying… would it kill you to go on a date?”
  • “We done it now.”
  • “Mexican man shoes”
  • “This. Is. Soooo much fun.”
  • “The Help. H-E-L-P.”
  • “…and I have decided not to die.”
  • It mentions a “gay cure.”
  • Accent-wise, I feel like the movie paints with a broad brush.
  • Oh, come on! No one sits on a desk like Mary Steenburgen did in this movie!
  • Hilly’s senile mother is a hoot!
  • I love it when a movie uses the same location/setting twice to draw a comparison. In this one, see the bathroom ones.
  • I didn’t talk much about the character Jessica Chastain plays, but she’s fun to be with.
  • It’s funny how they donate to starving African children…
  • In my notes, I wrote down both “Spencer – powerful” and “Viola Davis – truth.”
  • The toilet scene was another over-the-top one, but the pie scene takes the cake. (Get it?)
  • While I may have criticized the relationship the film tries to create between The Help and Skeeter, I thought the one between Minny and Chastain’s character was very touching. Seeing Chastain giggle while she was serving Spencer was beautiful.
  • I’m really sorry I don’t know Jessica Chastain’s character name.
  • There was no hard-at-work montage showing late nights typing, and I’m so glad. They kept it simple and real.
  • The Help was the 26th best film of 2011, in my opinion. If you enjoyed it, please see Driving Miss Daisy.
  • Next time: the best movies from the 1940s.
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