The Help succeeds in leaving the viewer feeling quite appalled. After all, fifty years was not that long ago. Yet it was a time when racism was very much with us. For example, two miles down the road from where I live at Frying Pan Park one can find what is now a country store. What it was until 1964, when Virginia was brought kicking and screaming at last into the modern age, was the Floris Colored School. That’s how racist my state still was in the early 1960s.
The Help takes place further south, in Jackson, Mississippi but things were not too different here in Virginia. Blacks largely did menial work. Few blacks could even begin to dream of attending college, and almost certainly not black women. Women found employment as maids for white families. Maid does not really describe their full range of duties, which included childrearing, cleaning and cooking. They made a relative pittance and did not even qualify for social security benefits. Jim Crow laws made it hard for many of them to vote. Blacks were kept in their place, by violence if necessary. Maids servicing the homes of white families even had to use separate colored restrooms; they were considered unsanitary.
All these indignities and more are painfully borne out in The Help, a heart wrenching and excellently acted film that was unsurprisingly nominated for a number of awards at the Oscars this year. Octavia Spencer deservedly won best supporting actress for her role as the maid Minny Jackson. Surprisingly, Emma Stone did not get an award for her terrific performance as Skeeter Phelan. Stone brings spunkiness and humanity to her role as a budding writer who feels compelled to secretly write a book about the lives of those who serve Jackson’s white community, while earning a modest living writing a housekeeping column for the local paper. Her role is quite challenging to carry out convincingly, yet she brings it off deftly. Skeeter managed to stay inside an insular white ladies social circle while upset by the plasticity and overt racism of the young Stepford wives around her. They are women she has grown up with, but are an overall annoying bunch ladies. It is all they have known.
As the film details, the early 1960s, particularly in the Deep South, were an age when proper white girls grew up to be housewives. They lived in meticulously maintained suburban homes, largely maintained by the labor of others. One thing they did well was popping out children, who were raised by the maid and were largely ignored by their mothers. These wives all look so impossibly young, and they are by today’s standards. It was an age when you married young and those proper white girls with connections got the upscale houses, a secure place in society and beautiful homes. They had little to do other than play bridge with other wives, meet at the local diner for lunch or invest their time in dubious charitable work, which mostly involved donating money and not getting their hands dirty. They looked more like models than women. They are portrayed as a largely hopelessly catty community with little depth or personality.
Director Tate Taylor amazingly breathes life a whole cast of memorable characters, none of whom you can forget as you are brought deep into their most intimate spaces. There is Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who epitomizes everything that is wrong with southern society. There is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the poor white trash girl who marries a rich socialite and tries desperately to be accepted into the ladies’ clique, but cannot gain acception. She finds herself having much more in common with Minny, the disgraced maid that she hires. There is Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the loyal family maid who raised Skeeter who is suddenly and abruptly discharged. There is Charlotte Phelan (Allison Janney), Skeeter’s mother, who has been consumed by her status in society all her life but cannot reconcile her required racism with her feelings for her maids. All this happens within the context of racial change that pervades the 1960s: the assassination of John F. Kennedy and of Medgar Evers, who is killed right in Jackson. Civil rights are topical, but in this deepest of the Deep South they are being covertly and overtly resisted by a white populace that has known nothing but racism, and is comfortable with it.
What you get is an excellent and unflinching film about our racial past, which probably deserved more academy award nominations than it received. It may be the finest movie about racism in America since To Kill a Mockingbird. At its center though are Skeeter and Minny, two memorable characters, and a story that feels painfully authentic and is at times sad, appalling and poignant. If the film has a problem at all, it is likely that with the exception of Skeeter, Celia and maybe her beau Stewart (Chris Lowell) it paints the young white wives of Jackson with too white a brush.
In short, it’s a movie well worth renting and is guaranteed to move even the most stoic among us.
3.4 on my four-point scale.
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