Very Highly Recommended (Bring lots of tissue!)
Once in a great while movies transcend entertainment, providing us with a portal through which we Americans can view the ongoing development of our national social conscience. The Help is one of those special films.
Director Tate Taylor has brought us a truly remarkable film that on the surface tells the story of the lives of African-American maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s. Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer give heartbreaking, Oscar worthy performances as Abilene Clark and Minny Jackson, two household maids who find the courage to risk everything they hold sacred to tell their story to a young, white, female reporter.
In the process, they open our eyes to the Jim Crow era in the South where little had changed in the relationships of whites and African-Americans since the end of the Civil War in 1865. Sure, slavery had officially ended, but it was replaced by a system where most black women were little more than indentured servants from the time they became teenagers, paid 95¢ an hour to carry the white man’s burden.
The camera allows us to see Abilene and Minny bear their lives of menial toil sprinkled daily with stinging humiliation with a stoicism that is hard to accurately describe. Treated as second class citizens where they were not even allowed to use the bathrooms frequented by their white employers, they nonetheless dedicated themselves to loving and raising white children largely ignored by their emotionally distant parents.
While both Ms. Spencer and Ms. Davis are glorious, it is Ms. Davis who continues to viscerally reflect women in pain. She was kind and caring as the psychiatrist in the overlooked comedy, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) and deserved her Oscar nomination as the emotionally defiant mother in Doubt (2008), where she was clearly the best thing going in that overrated film.
Emma Stone, fast developing into one of the finest actresses working today, plays Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, the young newspaper woman who refuses to accept the manifest indignities of her Southern culture. She dares to repeatedly ask the question “Why”, something that is largely forbidden to any Southerner, much less a Southern woman. She is the conscience of this profoundly moving film, and it is fascinating to watch her gradual awakening to the fact that the many African-American maids serving the white Southern aristocracy are equally entitled to what is claimed to be the American dream.
Initially pursuing the maids’ personal stories to help further her own journalistic career, Ms. Stone’s eyes are opened wide to the profound injustices existing in her society, injustices that are conveniently swept under the public rug. This includes the fact that her own mother, Charlotte, played brilliantly by Allison Janney, has dismissed under mysterious and unexplained circumstances their lifelong maid, the woman who raised Ms. Stone. (Played by the legendary Cicely Tyson, it was a fitting tribute to both her and the film to see her one more time.)
But what gives The Help its rich texture is that the story of these poor, endearing women necessarily involves a straightforward, unsympathetic look at their white employers. And in that regard, the film brings us one of the great female villains in the history of cinema in the form of Ms. Hilly Holbrook, played with a nefarious elan by Bryce Dallas Howard. As Heath Ledger did in his Oscar-winning role as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2007), Ms. Howard’s Holbrook comes close to stealing this glorious film in a role as a smarmy, damaged soul profoundly beyond redemption.
Ms. Howard dominates the screen at every turn as a proudly prejudiced true believer, a heel clicking Southern matron totally at peace with the class distinctions of her society. As the functional equivalent of a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara, she questions nothing other than women like Skeeter Phelan who would have the audacity to look behind the South’s racial curtain. (Who would ever think that Opie’s daughter could be so nasty!)
Closely behind Ms. Howard comes the performance of Jessica Chastain as the well-meaning Southern Belle, Celia Foote. As a woman perceived to be just this side of rich white trash, Ms. Chastain is outrageously funny as a socially ostracized young woman who has the audacity to treat her black maid as an equal.
While the moral force that drives this powerful film is clearly represented by Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer as African-American household employees, the glue that allows this historical drama to be molded into an exquisite story is represented by the supporting performances of women like Ms. Howard, Ms. Janney and Ms. Chastain who spectacularly breath life into characters that are so central to defining Southern culture.
It is worth noting that we frequently hear politicians and pundits use the phrase “American exceptionalism.” In doing so, they seem to imply that we are inherently better than those people living in other countries. Films like The Help allow us to view our national character as if we are studying our reflection in a mirror. It forces us to see not just who we are, but how we got here. Like it or not, there is a very dark side to America’s soul, and this film is a provocative reminder that we still have a long way to go.
This is a rich and deeply meaningful film. I purposely saw it at the Landmark Cinema at Glendale here in Indianapolis because I wanted to sit in a crowded, racially mixed theater. I particularly wanted to be sitting in the midst of a large group of black women and feel their reaction to the way their race has been treated by mine. In the process, it was an unforgettable moment to see everyone in the theater, white and black, repeatedly moved to tears.
The was and remains one of the most powerfully moving emotional experiences I have ever had in the cinema. The Help is why I can definitively say that if I could find half the spiritual inspiration in a house of worship that I frequently experience in a dark movie theater, I would be one of the world’s great holy men.