The help - no grey areas (Movie Review)

The Help is a dramatic tale of a white woman writing a book about the experiences of the black women who work as maids for the rich, white inhabitants of Jackson, Tennessee. This movie stirs up controversy about the apparent ‘white saviour’ complex it fuels, like fellow offender, Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side.

Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone), affectionately known as Skeeter, is a young woman who forsakes the traditional route of marriage to a suitably wealthy young man and instead escapes to university. The story begins with Skeeter’s return to Jackson when she first starts noticing the blatantly horrible treatment of ‘the help’ by her friends. She then decides to write a book about their stories to help propel herself to her dream job at a major publishing house in New York. The story escalates as she is egged on by the head honcho at the New York publishing house, Elain Stein (a brief but effective appearance by Mary Steenburgen).

In her quest to break through the world of the help, Skeeter approaches Aibileen (played to understated perfection by Viola Davis), who works as a maid for one of her friends. Initially reluctant, Aibileen predictably comes around. The audience is then slowly exposed to the emotional stories the maids have to tell as Aibileen is joined by her friend, the indomitable Minnie (Octavia Spencer). Further gems include the overdone villainy displayed by the leader of the white ladies and primary supporter of the act to force non-white people to use separate facilities, Hilly Holbrook. Bryce Dallas Howard plays the villainous Hilly to shrill perfection. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) also has a very believable turn as the not very bright but large-hearted girl who desperately wants to be part of the clique of women who spurn her advances at every turn.

One of the most impressive performances is by veteran actress Cicely Tyson, who plays Constantine, the maid who served as a mother, friend, confidante and advisor to Skeeter. While Constantine’s disappearance is a constant theme of Skeeter’s narrative, she appears in a mere three scenes, all of which will move you tears.

Thanks to the power-packed female performances, The Help will play you like a finely-tuned stringed instrument in terms of inducing tear jerking moments, and laughs and cheers for the plucky characters. On the other hand, the men of this movie are as disappointing as cardboard cutouts. The male characters serve merely as plot devices (directing the protagonist to an important location when required), as remembered memories (Aibileen’s son, as she recounts his story) or as caricatures of domestic abuse (Minnie’s husband Leroy).

 The white men are cut from the same mould, be it Skeeter’s suitor who balks in the face of what she has covertly accomplished, or Hilly’s husband, who simply cowers as his wife plots, schemes and screams.
Despite the somewhat predictable storyline, The Help is a movie worth watching, not just for the message it provides, but because it is filled with some of the best performances you will see this year. Despite running over two hours, the movie keeps you emotionally invested — so much so that you may find yourself sitting quietly till the end of the credits — as many were during this writer’s screening, unable to just casually walk out and immediately forget what we had just seen.

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