Kathryn Stockett’s first novel, The Help, was a huge success. Published in 2009, it was the type of book that everyone who read it loved it so much that they recommended it to a friend and so on and so on. You knew with that kind of success that it wouldn’t be long before it was adapted into a film. When it was announced that it was being made into a film I’m sure every young white female actress and every middle aged black actress was after their agent to get them an audition. It was the type of project that was a can’t miss.
After having seen the film the three leads, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone, were so good it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it. Viola Davis is an incredible actress. There are precious few who are able to move you as much as she can with so few words through her tone and pacing. There is a power and passion behind every word she utters. Even one look from her can bring a strong woman to their knees. When she fixes her eyes on you it is game over; you feel the strength. There is nothing glamourous or even pleasant about the life of the woman she portrays, but she brings a dignity to the character that not many could. Candor, warmth, truth, and calm are all things that Davis brings to the screen and her characters seemingly effortlessly.
Her calmness is offplayed wonderfully by the many vocal and emotional explosions of Octavia Spencer in her portrayal of Minny. There is nothing “small” about Minny. She is in your face, intense, hilarious, and lovable. Her comedic timing and ability to walk the line between portrayal and caricature are amazing. I’d be surprised if there is not a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in her future.
Emma Stone burst onto the scenes with wonderful comedic turns in films like Easy A, Superbad and Zombieland. And in just a few short years the redhead (though she is naturally a blonde) with the husky voice has become one of the most interesting and sought after young actresses in Hollywood today. With the previous films it was obviously that she had what it takes to be a good comedic actress. In The Help she proves that she can handle the dramatic stuff as well. Bright future!
There are also some standouts in the supporting cast. Bryce Dallas Howard is note perfect as the bitchy, racist leader of the Junior League ladies club. It is a thankless role playing the character that everyone is supposed to hate (and not easy either), but she does it well. Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, Jolene) is heartbreaking and lovable as the peroxide blonde, ditzy, white trash girl who has moved up in society by marrying well. Only to discover that no matter how much money she has she will always be considered an outsider. She is out of her league with these women and trying to run a plantation house by herself. Your heart ends up really going out to her as she is almost another “child” that Minny has to bring up.
The 1960s in Mississippi were not exactly the most liberating time for blacks. Aibileen (Viola Davis – Doubt, Eat Pray Love) is a maid who works for Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly – Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Nancy Drew) and her family. Not having the money to look after her own family, Aibileen has spent her life raising white kids. This despite the fact that there is no husband and her only son died young in a tragic accident. She is able to care for other people’s children even though her heart is broken over the death of her own.
Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) has returned to Jackson after graduating from Ole Miss with dreams of becoming a journalist or novelist. She gets a job with the local paper replacing Miss Myrna, a woman who writes a weekly household cleaning and maintenance column. This is not what the ambitious and unconventional, she isn’t married and has no prospects, Skeeter sees herself doing for too long. After seeing how her circle of friends, especially ringleader Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard – Eclipse, Spider-Man 3), treat their black maids (insisting on separate toilets outside the house so they don’t catch any of their diseases), Skeeter comes up with the idea of writing a book from the maids perspective.
This is a totally revolutionary and dangerous idea. Dangerous for Skeeter and especially for the maids. But Skeeter is dedicated to the idea and has already told Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen – The Proposal, Step Brothers), an editor at Harper and Row, that she has started interviewing maids, so there is no turning back. Aibileen is the maid she asks first. She refuses realizes the danger to her job and own life participating in such a book would be.
The gathering momentum of the civil rights movement and a revelation in church leads to Aibileen changing her mind and Minny following suit shortly afterwards. Soon Skeeter has enough stories to make a book that will cause many tongues to wag.
Although the film is a little simplistic with no truly good whites and no bad blacks (unless you count Minny’s abusive husband, who we never see onscreen), it does however make clear the racial divide between whites and blacks in the South in the 1960s. For over two hours (it won’t seem that long) you’ll find yourself laughing, crying, getting angry, and just basically loving the film.
-The Making of “The Help”: From Friendship to Film
-In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi
-“The Living Proof” Music Videos by Mary J. Blige