#235 – The Help (2011)

From 428,690 votes, The Help has an IMDb rating of 8.0.

An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African American maids’ point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.

Ah, The Help. A film that gets rightly critiqued for being a shameless white saviour story while also containing some of the best performances from some of the USA’s greatest female actors. It also holds a special place in my heart because it has Leslie Jordan and Sissy Spacek, two of my all-time favourite actors.

At its heart, The Help is a movie centred around the lives of black maids during the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement in America. Emma Stone provides the narrative driving force of the movie, intending to publish a book about the lives of these women. This is where the ‘white saviourism’ comes in. This TV Tropes article does a better job than I can do to explain the trope and the unfortunate implications of its use in a movie such as The Help. In fact, Viola Davis took an opportunity to openly criticise the film for its white narrative POV.

 I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.

Viola Davis

Valid political criticism aside, I just want to take a moment to talk about my opinions. Honestly, I liked the movie. I recognise the flaws intrinsic in its premise and execution but I enjoy the performances. A rolling storyline hits peaks and troughs of hilarious, stand-out moments of comedy and heart-wrenching, poignant scenes of strife that ramp up in emotionality as you come to know and appreciate the deep characterisation given to these women on screen. Watching the despaired performance of Jessica Chastain as the usually brimming-with-light Celia Foote as she suffers a miscarriage that she so desperately tried to avoid brought tears to my eyes, and by the time we see Davis’s Aibileen Clark say an almost mournful goodbye to the child she was trying so hard with sends me in floods every time.

I’m quite easily brought to tears, but this film is something else entirely.

It would be hard to write a review of The Help without mentioning what I think is the best scene of the movie: the scene where Skeeter (Stone) interviews a room chock full of black maids for her book, intending to expose the vicious treatment of the rich white ladies of the south. It’s an exciting scene with uh, some very memorable moments, and it’s here where the plot is reaching a climax, set off by the arrest of a local maid and the assassination of Medgar Evers.

I may have trouble remembering my own name, or what country I live in, but there are two things I can’t seem to forget: that my own daughter threw me into a nursing home, and that she ate Minny’s shit.

Missus Walters

Now, I will say that the film does get a little bit up Skeeter’s arse, portraying her as this rebel with a cause, a unique nice white person amongst the racism of the deep south, but this is taking some liberties. During the 60s there were white people marching in the civil rights protests alongside black people, and actively campaigning for the abolishment of the Jim Crow laws. It’s just a bit disingenuous to portray Skeeter as this island of sanity, when in reality she would be doing the very least as a self-involved writer looking to strike fame and a cushy city job – who in the book that the movie is based on is quite the absolute fucking racist.

More positively, Octavia Spencer is absolutely the stand-out in this movie, I feel. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (beating out her castmate Jessica Chastain) and you can’t deny it was deserved. The layers to a role like Minny, who must show so many different sides – a mother, a companion, a servant, an angry woman, a strong woman – make it look like a difficult task executed with style and grace. Spencer’s performance is utterly magnetic.

And that’s The Help.

Verdict: watch it with a critical eye.

One thought on “#235 – The Help (2011)

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