Mark Reviews Movies

The Help


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tate Taylor

Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O'Reilly, Allison Janney

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 8/10/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 9, 2011

The Help literally has its mind in the toilet. Its version of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South is tied directly to bodily functions and the facilities necessary for them. On a conceptual level, it makes sense, since throughout history there are sad and sorry examples of one group attempting to systematically degrade another by treating them as something less than human. When a movie about the African-American experience in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s bypasses the assassination of Medgar Evers to move on to a plot point about a pie made of human feces, though, one has to question the story's priorities.

The movie's main concern is the characters' subversive battle against deranged prejudice, using the best available tools to fight oppression: Giving a voice to the voiceless and revealing the humanity of those who have been methodically painted otherwise by bigots in positions of power and influence. In this realm, The Help successfully finds honesty, particularly in the way writer/director Tate Taylor's screenplay (based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett) balances the focus between its heroines, giving equal weight to the plights of the women who essentially are forced (through the rules of society and the laws of the state) to work for long hours and low wages for those who treat them as little more than slaves and the women who shun such an institution and are in a position to help create change.

It should go without saying that the lives of the formerly mentioned protagonists are far more involving than the latter ones, and, indeed, the movie seems to be grasping at straws to bring a sense of conflict outside of the central one into their lives. Despite the mostly evenly distributed weight of its main characters, the movie's true heroine is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), who has just graduated from college and dreams of becoming a real writer one day. Her mother (Allison Janney), slowly succumbing to cancer, wants her to find a husband, have children, and live the life of a dignified Southern belle. This leads to an inconsequential subplot involving her relationship with an obvious cad (played by Chris Lowell).

The voice of the story is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who has been a maid to many rich, white families for most of her life. At times, he work also entails serving as a surrogate mother to several children, whose mothers are—she supposes—too young and busy to do the job themselves, during her career. Her own son died not so long ago, the result of an accident at a factory and the disorganized, slow, and heartless way in which his employer handled it (not to mention the lack of proper equipment at the "blacks only" hospital).

Finally, there's Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who through the course of the movie works for two diametrically opposed examples of attitudes towards race relations. First is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a stern and unforgiving woman who spends the whole movie attempting to push forward a law that would mandate all households with African-American maids to build separate bathrooms outside the house. She fears the "different kinds of diseases" she assumes they possess and could spread, and when Minny has the presumption to use the inside bathroom during a deadly tornado, Hilly fires her. Second is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a newly married woman whom Hilly hates, leading to her isolation from "good" society.

Skeeter's idea is to write a book chronicling the lives of women who must raise other people's children while leaving their own at home, and, at first, only Aibileen and Minny risk the dangerous terrain of speaking the truth within a culture of overt racism that thrives and finds comfort in denial. The stories of the maids are presented in montage, as they reveal the ways, both small and large, that their dignity is undermined. One woman notes how she passed down from one generation to the next in a mother's will, as if she were merely property. What's strange about the sequence is that Taylor gives Skeeter and Celia's problems (feeling terrible about her mother's firing of her own maternal substitute and a series of miscarriages, respectively) more significance through the use of visual storytelling, while the titular caste is left simply to orate their own.

Then there is still the question of the movie's fascination with the commode. Whether it's a prank involving toilets on Hilly's front yard or the aforementioned pie, The Help does itself no favors by effectively undermining the impact of the sinister forces at work by making so much of the protagonists' progress rely on bathroom-related gags.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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