I’m pretty sure I first peeped the trailer for The Help when I went to see Tyler Perry’s for colored girls and decided at Viola Davis that I was going to see it. (She is in my pantheon of diva godmothers, after all.)
Though it’s been on my radar since that time, the actual opening snuck up on me. As is my custom, I did my best to avoid reviews of and articles about The Help this past week, averting my eyes as I came across a proliferation of opinions about the film in newspapers and my Facebook and Twitter feeds. It didn’t dawn on me until two days afterward that it opened on Wednesday, August 10th.
The Help is controversial for reasons that didn’t register when I first saw the trailer. However, about a month ago, I read an interview with Viola Davis in the August issue of Essence where she explains why she took the role; and, ever since, the roots of the controversy have become increasingly clear. In addition to that interview, I read a few related pieces in that issue of Essence that contextualize (especially) African-American women’s valid misgivings about the film and its source material, a novel of the same name, and author Kathryn Stockett. (I’m part of a Facebook Club that plans to read the book, The Help, which I may review in the coming month(s). Stay tuned.)
These things considered, I went into the theatre with an open mind and an open heart – the main reason I avoid reviews and the like, in general – knowing that my assessment might land towards the unpopular end of the spectrum of popular opinion. Or, rather, the opinion that I “should” have as a black woman artist and intellectual. As some of my opinions in print have unwittingly courted controversy, I figured, “What have I got to lose?”
My verdict: The Help is a win, in a “seeing the forest through the [exquisite] trees” kinda way. At its core, the story highlights and lauds the courage of initially downtrodden maid Aibileen Clark (a gut wrenching performance from Ms. Davis) as she and her friends and fellow domestics find and use their voices to “blow the whistle” on the racist families that they work for. Their stories are recorded by sympathetic writer and misfit Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) and serve as these women’s contribution to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, the film’s backdrop.
Davis “admits some scenes made her uncomfortable” in the post “5 Questions for Viola Davis on ‘The Help’” from Essence Online, which I read after seeing the film. Indeed, watching the film is difficult at times, in “good” and bad ways. (At others, it’s extremely difficult.) Unfavorably, aspects of the portrayal of the black women characters occasionally border on stereotypical. Alternately, the pain that Aibileen feels regarding one of the atrocities that she experienced is so palpable that I found myself looking away during that monologue. I never do that when watching an emotionally charged moment, which is a testament to Viola Davis’ extraordinary artistry.
It is an Oscar-worthy performance, which, I know and understand, is part of the aforementioned controversy. However, the likelihood that she will be recognized thus for the role of a domestic is not her fault; and I respect Davis’ (subversively brave) decision to take this role because of its depth and humanity. I, likewise, trust the judgment of legend Cicely Tyson (who is known for being selective), Octavia Spencer, Aunjanue Ellis, LaChanze, and the other wonderful black actresses in supporting roles in this film. As a whole, their work in The Help furthers the case for diverse, quality options for black actresses in Hollywood.
With Davis at the helm, the cast – a mixture of “who’s who in Hollywood,” “I know I’ve seen her/him elsewhere,” and “she/he is one to watch” – is strong, in general. In fact, the cast and the film’s overarching themes are, ultimately, what make it so powerful. It’s not perfect, mind you. However, as confirmation that dignity and self-respect are worth their potential high costs and an illustration of the power of sisterhood, The Help is worth viewing. I walked away emboldened to continue using my voice, my way; and it’s likely to inspire and encourage you as well.
(In the meantime, I have some catching up on popular opinion to do …)
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