(2011) Period Drama (DreamWorks/Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo, Aunjanue Ellis, Nelsan Ellis. Directed by Tate Taylor
Often those who work as domestic servants are relegated to being background characters, even in real life. They clean the houses of their employers, cook their food and even raise their children, but their stories are rarely told. That’s especially true of the African-American domestics of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as America stood on the cusp of the civil rights movement.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss with her head stuffed with the dreams of being a writer. Her mother Charlotte (Janney) has different dreams for her daughter; mainly of getting married, something Skeeter isn’t eager to do. Her friends mostly already have and can’t figure out why on earth a good looking girl like Skeeter remains unhitched.
Skeeter is surprised that her longtime nanny and maid Constantine (Tyson) is gone. According to her parents, Constantine has gone to Chicago to be with her family there but Skeeter senses that there is something she’s not being told. She holds her tongue however, considering her mother is battling cancer. Skeeter is also far too busy starting a new job as the columnist for the (fictional) Jackson Journal dispensing housecleaning tips.
Her friend Hilly Holbrook (Howard) has become something of a community leader, head of the local Junior League and writer and proponent of a bill that specifies that the hired help in Jackson homes must have separate toilet facilities. This doesn’t sit well with her maid Millie (Spencer), who doesn’t appreciate being sent out in a hurricane to use an outdoor commode. When she pretends to use the family restroom, she is shown the door much to the chagrin of Hilly’s mom (Spacek) who was Millie’s actual employer.
Millie is the best cook in Jackson so it won’t take her long to get another position, this time with Celia Foote (Chastain), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks blonde who is married to an ex-boyfriend of Hilly’s and has thus earned social shunning. Celia knows nothing of cleaning house or cooking, and she desperately needs someone who can train her in both, or at least convince her husband Johnny (Vogel) that she knows something.
Also in Skeeter’s circle is Elizabeth Leefolt (O’Reilly) whose young daughter Mae is being raised by Aibileen (Davis), who has raised seventeen white babies while her own son died recently. She keeps her grief to herself, pouring herself into taking care of the family she works for. She notices that Elizabeth doesn’t really interact with her daughter much, rarely picking her up and Mae has become as a result way more attached to Aibileen.
Skeeter is aware of Aibileen’s reputation as a housekeeper and asks Elizabeth permission to talk to Aibileen so she can get help writing her column. Elizabeth is reluctant and puts a stop to the conversations after a single session but Skeeter becomes fascinated by Aibileen and has the brilliant idea to write the stories of the domestics of Jackson and make a book out of them. Her publishing contact in New York (Steenburgen) agrees but is skeptical that given the climate in Jackson that Skeeter will see much co-operation.
It initially appears that the publisher is right when Aibileen refuses Skeeter but after a particularly impassioned sermon by the local pastor (Oyelowo) inspires Aibileen to change her mind. Aibileen also recruits her friend Millie and soon Skeeter is getting some pretty subversive stuff, things that are going to shake up Jackson to the core.
This is based by the 2009 bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett whose childhood friend Taylor adapted the work for the screen and directed. Taylor does a fair job with it, framing the story in the turbulent times; we see clips of Medgar Evers (and see the devastating effects of his murder on the community) as well as JFK and Martin Luther King. The archival footage dos help set the time and place.
It is the acting that is the real reason to see this movie. Davis in particular becomes the center of the movie and Stone, who is the erstwhile lead, seems to realize that and generously allows Davis to shine at her own expense. That turns out to be a good move for the film; Davis carries it. Her quiet dignity and expressive eyes are at the center of the movie. For my money, it’s an Oscar-caliber performance and I sure hope the Academy remembers her work come nomination time.
That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast isn’t impressive as well. Stone takes Skeeter and gives her sass and character. At times the character is written as kind of the “white person saving the black person” cliche, but Stone elevates it above stock character status. Speaking of sass, Spencer just about defines the term in her portrayal of Minnie who comes off as very spunky but there are moments when she reveals her inner pain, suffering in an abusive relationship and unsure of herself.
Howard has the juiciest role here, that of the hysterical racist Hilly. Howard has had some decent performances in a variety of movies, but this might be her finest. She captures the pettiness and vitriol of the part and her expression when Millie’s “terrible awful” is revealed is priceless.
Veterans Steenburgen, Janney and Spacek lend further credibility to the film which is well acted from top to bottom. There are moments of genuine comedy (the terrible awful) as well as some heartstring tuggers (when Aibileen reveals to Skeeter what happened to her son). Mostly, you get a sense of the attitudes towards African-Americans of the era. We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a very long way to go (as evidenced in the treatment of our President and the continued use of racial profiling). The Help isn’t the best movie of the year but it is on a very, very short list.
REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and compelling source material. Drama, comedy, pathos; this movie has something for everybody.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be emotionally manipulative in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic material is on the mature side; younger kids may not understand the historical context but for teens who might be learning about the civil rights movement this makes for some fine viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book the movie is based on was rejected 60 times before finally being published, a testament to persistence by author Kathryn Stockett.
HOME OR THEATER: As studio films go this one’s pretty intimate but the shared experience factor tends to make me lean towards theater for this one.
FINAL RATING: 9/10