DIRECTOR: Tate Taylor
May Contain Spoilers!
Whilst I was watching this drama, set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960’s unfold, I found myself thinking back to another film which I reviewed back in July, The Women. Not as a direct comparison and certainly not to malign this with The Women’s quality, but the tone had some similarities. The Help follows young, white, aspiring writer, Skeeter (Emma Stone), as she attempts to put together a book of testimonials from the black women which work as servants, cooks, cleaners and nannies to the white families in the Southern United States, at the dawn of the civil rights movement in the turbulent 60’s.
Skeeter was herself raised by a black nanny, known as The Help, and sets about learning the truth behind this institution which was only a step away from the slavery which was supposedly vanquished a hundred year earlier. It’s not all dour, she learns, mainly through The Help, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) that not all the white families are bad, and that they conduct themselves not only with as much dignity as they are allowed, but understand that they are not the second class citizens which many make them out to be.
But you’ve seen one civil rights movie and you’ve seen them all… right? Well, sort off, but some are better than others. This is not the best of the best, but it’s an admirable effort, tugging gently at your heart-strings whilst not ramming these issues down your throat. This is set in te deep south, it hard to escape the realities of racism but this film tries to limit the horrors and injustices as much as possible, instead focusing on the rights and wrongs of the situation.
The white men come across in a slightly more negative way here, but besides the mention of the K.K.K. assassinating Medgar Evers, they are generally portrayed as dismissive, leaving their wifes to deal with the day-to-day issues of the home and there by, The Help. This film has its villain, and that is in the form of Bryce Dallas Howard’s, Hilly Holbrook, a woman who herself was pretty much raised by The Help only to treat them as slaves as an adult.
She is a clear villain, but as most of the white characters are portrayed here, she is pathetic and weak, with Hilly simply bullying all those around her, whilst her peers, white women, seem incapable of making their own decisions of forming their own opinions.
The black characters are portrayed as sassy or disciplined, working towards a better day, when they can share the same toilet as their white masters and live free from degradation and abuse. It’s notable that whenever a black child is mentioned it is usually in reference to gaining an education, with one character resorting to stealing at one point, to pay for one of her sons to go to college. This doesn’t end well. But this is one plotline which goes to show how even-handed it is, knowing that a good argument will speak for itself, and therefore you are free to be true to you characters, good or bad.
The narrative is told through the eyes of the female characters in this Oscar nominated film, all of which are in one way or another oppressed and fighting to be heard. It’s also nicely played that this film is not just about racism in the 1960’s as much as it’s about sexism and the rise of feminism, with Stone trying to escape this small town trap, where a career is frowned upon by women trapped by convention themselves; Who place themselves on a pedestal higher than those who cook and clean for them.
And this is where Jessica Chastain comes in as a white women is looked down upon because she’s perceived as “Trailer Trash”. The fact that she is clearly colour blind (Figurativly), never really raises its ugly head here, instead she is trying to get the attention of the likes of Hilly (Howard) who is ashamed to be seen with her. They use the complexity and hypocrisy of this white conservative social dynamic to contrast the simpler life of their Help, who are still fighting for equality, in their own small way, as they contribute to Skeeter’s book.
My earlier comparison to The Women is based on the fact that even though men do appear in this, unlike The Women where not a single man is seen, this is very much a famine narrative, but unlike the other, this is about real issues, racial and feminist, rather than some cockamamie nonsense about not being appreciated and feeling smothered by all their money!
This is about women who raise and love other people’s children only for them to grow up and turn on them. This is about women working for a pittance in the so-called “land of the free” at a time when presidents were being assassinated for advocating equality. The Help convincingly and emotionally shares the stories of this time, but does so without demonising everyone, choosing to cast Howard our villain, whilst allowing us to see the pathetic restraints placed upon the other white women.
This may be no excuse, but this was not and will never be a perfect issue with clearly defined rights and wrong and this story correctly chooses to be told in shades of grey, and not Black and White.
I have given this 7/10 and feel that maybe it deserves more, but for all the praise that would lavish upon its tone, its execution is still a little stale with the first hour running through the motions like any other movie of the week, but the second half picks up nicely and ensures that the best elements of this story are not wasted on a boring or mundane film.
This is not perfect. It not the best anti-racism film that I have seen and it does feel a little derivative, with my mind being cast back to films such as the afore-mentioned The Women, as well as Mona Lisa’s Smile to name two, but that can’t always be helped with such a well-worn subject. It was moving and the performances were first-rate across the board, and defiantly worthy of the best actress nods which Viola Davis, Octavia Spenser and Jessica Chastain were given and I would recommend this as a watch as a refreshingly unpreachy civil rights film and one which holds back from showing some of the now clichéd horror staples of that time. There are no significant K.K.K. murders besides that of Evers, which is off-screen, nor do we see any burning crosses, but the threat is present and that can actually underpin the tension better than any actual act.
In conclusion, this is a well judged film but I do feel that we’ve seen this before in many way, but besides that, I still liked it, a lot.