The civil rights movement of the 1960s is the most ghastly periods of American history; it’s also recent enough to be the topic of discussion across various mediums. Perhaps it’s not tackled in quite as direct a way as other films and books; nonetheless the latest film to look at the era is the help. Based on the book by Kathryn Stockett and directed by Tate Taylor, the help follows idealistic wannabe writer Skeeter (Emma Stone). Getting a job at a local paper in Mississippi thanks to her enthusiasm, Skeeter fills in for the home help article and through the person she is using to answer the cleaning questions she decides to stretch her boldness further.
Disgusted with the firing of her home help (Constantine) and the way her community is treating the black help, especially Hilly Holbrook who wants the help to have separate bathrooms, “separate but equal”, she says. Informed by the disgusting treatment of the help who raise white kids for parents who are too busy to raise their own children and the advice given by the editor of a job she applied for before working with the local paper, she decides to do something unspeakable dangerous. In a move that could see the help she is asking help from arrested Skeeter decides to write a book detailing the day-to-day lives and reality of the help.
The one complaint that could openly be made when talking about the help is the way it presents one of the darkest moments in living history softly. There would be no way to argue the contrary as true. Looking on the bright side for a moment, movies which are driven by a narrative are the best way for people to learn about points in history and if all the versions of a certain event in history were presented in a way that meant such films were meant for adults eyes only. Presenting such history with a softer lens allows people who would traditionally be alienated to be both educated and entertained. That may be true, but a few brutal blows that distract from the tone whether that is Medger Evers, the language or the occasional strikes of police brutality.
There are two points which help the film become more than another portrait of the brutality of man, those points being the humour and the personal angle. With a turn that jumps between comic relief and heavy drama we have a great supporting performance by Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, a story branch that echoes the intolerance whilst also being a story of the personal victories via unexpected means. That is true of the film as an experience; the writing of the titular book is a far more personal story than an all-encompassing one a controversial epoch.
These personal stories centre on three characters played by Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard and Viola Davis. Stone carries the film as the framing tool, everything that is happening in this backwards town is happening around Skeeter. As great of a performance as it is, she doesn’t really have much to do other than writing down people’s stories. One problem with Skeeter, it’s somewhat unbelievable for a beautiful girl like Emma Stone to struggle finding a boyfriend, its illusion shattering. It’s not just Stone, Dallas Howard and Davis that impress; Jessica Chastain also appears in a role which shows how incredible an actor she is and how varied a range she carries.
Minor points aside, the real story centres around the white-supremacist Hilly Holbrook and the first home help to write for the book – Abilene Clark. All films no matter what the genre might be needs an antagonist and there have been very few films this year with one as unspeakably evil as Hilly Holbrook, she is like Hitler in a dress. Her counter character in Abilene is the counter in every conceivable way. When these characters come to blows it’s almost as if your emotions are being manipulated, you won’t notice while you are watching because the emotions of the piece will sweep you away, its heartbreaking at times. Its only afterwards when the clinical construction reveals itself.
Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howards turn in award worthy performances in an impeccably acted film that will have you laughing one minute and crying the next. At an overstretched 146 minutes, it might not be to everybody’s taste and it might patronize a serious historical issue. However it’s never anything less than brilliant, the overwhelming feeling you will have after the credits roll is the satisfaction of an entertaining and wholesome watch. The real reason the film deserves respect though is because of the way it treats the cinematically undernourished female audience with a social significant story that ticks all the right boxes.