Friday, February 10, 2012

The Help

I just finished watching “The Help” and not only has it earned an instant place among the ranks of racial prejudice stories, but it also shines as one of the best films I've ever seen about women.

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, “The Help” is the story of an upcoming writer, Skeeter, who decides to write a 'tell all' about the lives of black maids in the south. After a lifetime of watching the white treatment of their black help, Skeeter finally decides to take a stand when one of her friends drafts a proposal to forbid any black servant from using a white toilet. Skeeter has a publisher on the line with the caveat that she must get actual hired help to share their stories. That's a task that is easier said and done.

In early 1960 it was, of course, the height of the civil rights movement. Times were starting to change, but that change happened far from peacefully. Any maid that spoke up knew she would be lucky if she got off with just loosing her job. A violent death was a very real possibility. So Skeeter is hard pressed to find any women who are willing to speak up, no matter how anonymously.

Then two maids, Abiline and Minny, face God's calling and reach the end of their ability to silently endure injustice. Timidly at first, but with growing determination, they tell Skeeter their stories.

“The Help” is a beautiful and heart-wrenching portrayal of a time in history that most of us would prefer to forget. Not only is it the story of horrible mistreatment of thousands of people, but it is also the story of real relationships. Every character is given a solid characterization, with strong motivations. There is hurt and hate, but also love and kindness. While some of the white ladies are often cruel, others go out of their way to show real kindness. And the servants, too, while battling their resentment, do not stint the love they give to their charges.

In fact, while the most touching storyline was Abiline's relationship with the baby girl she cared for, I was also deeply moved by Minny's two relationships with two of her employers. One, an older woman in the beginning stages of dementia, is treated with real grace, respect and affection by Minny, even though the woman is often trying and her daughter is downright horrible. The other, a young bride, scored by the other town ladies as 'white trash' struggles to learn how to live in a world foreign to her upbringing. Minny patiently teaches her how to cook and is the only one there to help her through personal tragedy.

We also see a poignant story of mothers and daughters in Skeeter's relationship with her mother. Although fraught with the frustration that most twenty-somethings have with their mothers, they both truly love each other and respect each other enough to grow in understanding.

Finally, this is a story about the inner strength of woman in every form. Not just feminism – although that was a growing issue at the time and is tastefully handled. These are women who must stand up against every social expectation to do what is morally right. And not all of them manage it.

It is rare to find a film that handles so difficult a subject not only so sympathetically, but also realistically. With an excellent script and fantastic acting, it's easy to forget that the story is a movie, and not a window into history. Emma Stone (Skeeter), Viola Davis (Abiline), Octavia Spencer (Minny) and Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly Holbrook, the main antagonist) all deserve kudos. I never thought it would be possible to so thoroughly detest Bryce Dallas Howard in any role!

“The Help” is rated PG-13 for thematic material, but nothing that I would classify as truly objectionable. A wee bit of language, discussion of some of the violence of the period, references to a pregnancy out of wedlock and a character discovered in the midst of a miscarriage (we only see a bit of blood). Perhaps the only truly controversial element is when one character is revealed to have baked human excrement into a pie (hence most of the language – the s-word). It's a key point in the story, but it might be a good idea to forswear eating chocolate while watching the film!

Overall I would heartily recommend this as one of the best films of the year and encourage you to go out and watch it at first opportunity!

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