Sunday, August 28, 2011

"The Help" - A Bit Flawed But Worth Seeing

Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her mother (Sissy  Spacek) head for a luncheon with their maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) bringing up the rear with one of her famous pies.

I finally got around to seeing The Help yesterday. At 11:45 a.m. the theater was packed! Word-of-mouth  (and blog) has really provided great (and well-deserved) advertising for this film, based on the best-selling book about the pre-Civil Rights South by Kathy Stockett.

This look at the de-humanizing of black people by the white people they work for is quite compelling. The "help" consists of black maids who serve as housekeepers, laundresses, cooks, maids and child-rearers for white women who have neither the time nor inclination to perform these duties for themselves. Although the maids are paid, their status has changed little since the age of slavery.

Their story is related primarily by Aibileen (Viola Davis), who tends to Elizabeth Leefolte (Ahna O'Reilly) and the child she neglects. She is joined by her friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), who has the misfortune to "do for" the Holbrook household, headed by the vile Hilly (Blythe Dallas Howard).

The white women they toil for six days a week for less than minimum wage are the hoi-polloi of Jackson, Miss. society. Immaculately clothed and coiffed (usually by the maids), they spend their time hosting luncheons and raising funds for African children while ignoring the needs of people right under their noses.

The leader of this pack is the aforementioned Hilly, a honey-drawled racist who has a way of steamrolling everyone into doing her bidding and truly believes that blacks are a sub-species.

The catalyst of the story is Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who sees the injustice of the maids' plight and persuades them to share their stories for a book. Reluctant at first, and rightfully fearing retaliation, Aibileen and Minny finally agree. Skeeter sells her book idea to a New York editor (Mary Steenbergen), with the proviso that she add a dozen more maids' stories to the two she has submitted.

One maid's desperation leads to her arrest for theft (at Hilly's request), and her unjust treatment and the increasing violence against blacks - including the assassination of Medgar Evers - bring more maids to the fore to share their stories.

And what stories they are; raising white children while leaving their own at home in the care of someone else, being denied the use of the toilets in the white families' homes, and being treated as less than human in a hundred different ways.

The Help is beautifully told, both in story and cinematically. The acting is superb throughout, although Davis, Spencer and Howard take it to another level.

The major problem with the film is that is uses a very wide brush to paint the story. All the maids are caring and noble, and loyal to a fault. All the white women are shallow trophy wives who blindly follow where Hilly leads. There are no nuances, no gray areas. Hilly is so unceasingly horrible that you really appreciate Minny's flaky form of revenge.

Skeeter is just too perfect; the only person in all of Mississippi who cares about black people who play such an important role in the lives of the whites, the only one willing to risk breaking the law to present their problems to the world. We are never told what makes her different from her peers or why she's so determined to fight the system she was raised with.

The highlight of The Help is Sissy Spacek, who plays Hilly's not-quite-all-there mother. She's having a grand old time with her small role and provides just the right amount of humor.

In spite of its faults, The Help brings to light a very bleak chapter in America's history and lets us relate on a very human level.


Montanagirl said...

We never go to movies, but it sounds like a good one.

jeanne said...

Thank you for the great movie review. I want to read the book and see the movie. We love to go to the movies as long as they aren't graphic and horror movies in a bad way. I like a good story and happy endings. Smile.

Your Crepe Myrtle photo is stunning for PS. I love the pink ones best.
Thanks for sharing such a beautiful one.
Hugs, Jeanne

Rene said...

I do want to see this - if for nothing other than decor and costume. Thanks for the review!

Laura said...

hi, just found your blog, welcome to bloggy land!! hoping to see that movie one day for sure! Laura xx