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Movie Review: The Help

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The Help is a proper film filled with vintage wallpaper of laughter and tears. It has broad appeal for a chick flick. Because these are ladies you can live with beyond the 137 minutes of the film.

Tate Taylor found an unwanted manuscript – an uncut diamond – bought the rights, wrote the screenplay, and directed The Help. It was a stunning directorial debut. Set in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, The Help is based on a bestseller by Kathryn Stockett.

The movie follows writer Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a young white woman who must crack the glass ceiling of racial segregation to write a book about black women who care for white children, cook, clean, scrape and bow before their white employers. Skeeter gets the idea of writing about the city’s black career maids and housekeepers from their vantage point; black women inform her novel story.

That goal may sound innocent but in Jim Crow Mississippi it is against the law. So the women must proceed with caution. Skeeter is the aspiring newbie writer in search of something to write about. She is also new to how blacks and whites must conduct themselves in polite southern society.

The young maverick creates her own opportunity when she begins to ask questions about her nanny and maid (Cicely Tyson) who suddenly leaves the household. Her mother is mum on the subject. So Skeeter begins digging into the lives of other black maids she sees. Two maids: Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) and Abiliene Clark (Viola Davis) steal the show. They are best friends and leading ladies in this vibrant cast of characters.

One might ask do we really need another blacks-inform-whites about white supremacy as it affects their daily life in the Deep South. It seems so because The Help could help to carve out an inclusive niche for itself as well as future imitation.

There is much to like about The Help, there is also much to laugh out loud about too. This drama drew more laughter from the packed female audience than other films I saw this summer billed as comedy. If opening day is any indicator, then it bodes well for director Taylor and DreamWorks despite the subject matter of this film.

There is some formula in the writing that involves (what else?) toilet humor. However, the humor around human bodily function is threaded into the story line which begins with ranting by one of the stanch defenders of white women purity who insists that the families who hire black women maids must also provide a separate toilet for their use only. She is convinced that they are more “disease ridden” and therefore must never use the household toilet. This thread has a companion but it would be a spoiler if I talk about it, however that scary event finds its way into the book Skeeter is writing and creates a handful of funny vignettes for the audience. I have not read the novel but I am confident that this part of the screenplay had to be an integral part of the novel.

While the cheap shots did compromise the film by shoving it into what I call the “playing-it-safe” genre; toilet humor as tried-and-true-laugh tract, a mostly white cast along with a PG-13 ratings will keep this film in theaters longer than most and get it noticed during awards’ season. Critics were fairly kind to this film but I suspect the toilet humor and an unknown director are two factors that probably kept it from garnering higher scores. I enjoyed the film thoroughly and give it solid 4/5 stars.

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About Heloise

  • Perspective is so interesting. You say, “one might ask do we really need another blacks-inform-whites about white supremacy as it affects their daily life in the Deep South.” Two of the main criticisms about the film from the black community’s perspective – which, ironically, provide a resounding “yes” to your implied question – are “Do we really need another film about a white woman ‘saving’ black folks?” and “In 2011, why are these stellar, tried-and-true black actresses, especially Viola Davis, getting their big breaks as maids?” Despite these legitimate concerns, I appreciate the film for its strengths, one of which is the spotlight on Jim Crow. As long as racism and classism – which are integral parts of America’s history – exist, there will be a place for films like this. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an American period film that does not address and/or allude to racism and/or classism. (My review of “The Help” was published here on Blogcritics today. I hope you’ll check it out. My byline is “skh_stellar_one.”)

  • Heloise

    Jane the writer always refers to the last person or event spoken of. Therefore the shot was the toilet humor. The same way One understands pronoun usage. She or he refers to the last person identified. English 101. The casting was a given. Heloise

  • Jane Hatton

    I’m confused by your last paragraph. Are you saying that the predominantly white casting, in a film that should have been telling a black story but wasn’t, was a cheap shot? Or are you saying “thank goodness this film has a white cast or none of us would bother to go watch it”?