Women’s Movement, by Jack Fleischer
I would suggest that anyone still in debate over seeing The Help, stay away from watching the trailer. It simply does not do this film justice. This movie transpires in the same time and place as Ghosts of Mississippi and Mississippi Burning, and the trailer seems designed to make The Help come across as Disney’s delightful take on the horrors of Jim Crow. Instead this movie is a well-acted, well-told story with more substance to it than the ads imply.
The film begins with Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a housemaid in early ‘60s Jackson, Mississippi, telling local writer Skeeter (Emma Stone) the story of how and why she became a maid. As the story progresses we learn all about the separate black and white communities of Jackson. What’s more we get an up close look at how these maids must straddle the divide. The inciting incident here comes when a law dictating segregated toilets in private homes becomes a battle cry for some of the whiter housewives of Jackson.
More than a story illustrating the evils of racism, this is an excellent character study. You have a female villain with nearly all the charm and frigidity of “Nurse Ratched” in Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Then there’s Octavia Spencer (Dinner for Schmucks) and Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) in the comedy linchpin positions as the maid “Missy” and her trophy wife boss “Jolene.”
Leading the crew is Davis, and Stone, and both do bang up jobs. I could see Davis getting another Oscar nod for this performance, and it was particularly fun to watch the play between Stone and Allison Janney who plays her mother. In the end all the actresses here ride the line between comedy and drama with great aplomb.
But really The Help is notable for the position it will assume in the realm of film geek debate.
For starters this is a female driven buddy movie, and between this movie and Bridesmaids, 2011 is quickly becoming the year of the female buddy flick.
As often discussed in mixed gender film circles, the list of films that explore the relationships between female friends is a short one. True there’s Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes, Beaches, and assorted others, but so many of these films are also defined by the pursuit or avoidance of a male antagonist, or a lesbian affair. In short, it’s rarely ever just about women being friendly with other women. In The Help there are some good guys, and some bad guys, but really this is a story about women working with women to defeat racism. If you’re feeling picky this could even be listed as a failing of the film since nearly all the male characters here are fleetingly one-dimensional.
Secondly, it’s often pointed out that in mainstream movies about the evils of racism, it’s really the story of how a benevolent white person came to the rescue. Even though the film is being sold as a lighthearted Emma Stone movie; in reality this movie wisely begins and ends with Viola Davis’ Aibileen. This is really Aibileen’s story, not Skeeter’s.
Stone’s character actually becomes a tool of the maids, and if you want to get all “interpret-y” (and pretentious) it could be argued that Skeeter is in fact “the help” referred to in the movie’s title.
This movie is slick and mainstream; it’s also funny and sweet, dramatic and pointed. Don’t be fooled by the advertising; there’s more to this movie than toilets on a racist’s front lawn.