The Help (2011)
84th Academy Awards 2012
Nominated for 4 awards, of which it won 1.
Nominated for Best Picture (Brunson Green, Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan), Best Actress (Viola Davis), and Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain).
Won Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer).
Watched August 23, 2012.
It is the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is just returning from college to realize that she has not only outgrown her friends-turned-housewives, but that the maids she has known and loved her whole life are not happy members of her bridge club society. To pursue her dream as a writer in a southern belle culture that still supports stay-at-home mothers over a working woman any day, she takes a job at the local paper writing the cleaning column. Knowing nothing about cleaning, Skeeter enlists her friend Elizabeth’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) to help. From cleaning columns to civil rights stories, their relationship and project takes a drastic turn when Skeeter gets the idea to tell the story of Jackson through the point of view of “the help.”
This comedic drama was not something that hit me right away when I initially saw it in theaters. However, after rewatching it I discovered the emotional depth and the sadness of the maids’ internal dialogues. The Help has so many integral characters that you would think their stories and personalities might become lost or muddled, but Tate Taylor does an excellent job of bringing Kathryn Stockett’s book to life on screen. Aibileen has always been a maid–she has raised 17 white children who start out so beautiful and innocent, but then grow up to be just like their racist, segregationist parents. The Civil Rights Movement is happening all around the country, but the middle class town of Jackson is still chugging along in what other states would have considered the past. It was a way of living that contradicted the segregation laws of the time–living in harmony with one another while being required to stay apart.
Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), Aibileen’s best friend, knows the dangers surrounding her and her family more than most, but still stubbornly stands up for herself when abused by her employer, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the steamy villain. Hilly, who is the epitome of a segregationist, believes in living completely apart from the maids, which includes but is not limited to having designated toilets depending on one’s race. After Minny pretends that she has used Hilly’s toilet, Hilly immediately fires her in fury. This leads to one of my favourite pieces of the film–Minny is hired by Miss Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the outcast woman who the others consider white trash because she married one of “their” men. In a display of acting so powerful, comedic, and emotionally heartbreaking, these two nominees battle time appropriate stereotypes together and build a relationship that Hilly would have found repugnant. It is a display of love and friendship that I had not expected from The Help anywhere else than between Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny.
There is not a single performance in this film that should be singled out to be knocked down. Emma Stone’s usual comedy is dialed down to show a depth and an actress so in tune with the emotions of her character that I forgot immediately that she was the diabolical star of the recent Easy A and the wonderful Hannah in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Skeeter has an innocence and determination that she must have been born with, but then cultivated in college, away from the influence of her home town.
The film deals with not only segregation, but also young love and heartbreak, a miscarriage, and cancer. Despite Hilly’s best efforts, the love that is shown between so many characters truly makes this a wonderful piece. More than anything, I would recommend this film to you if you have somehow overlooked it. It is much more than what many would perceive as a “chick flick,” but is a genuinely wonderful period piece full of humor, fear, and maybe slightly over-the-top villainy.
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