Monday, January 30, 2012

The Help (2011)

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer

An aspiring writer, Eugina "Skeeter" Phelan (Stone) has just returned home from college and lands a job writing for a local newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. Her work for the paper leads her to a maid by the name of Aibileen Clark (Davis.) Skeeter decides to write a "tell-all" book detailing what life was like for a black maid, and the hardships they faced working for white families. In one scene, Skeeter references the character of "Mammy" from Gone With The Wind (1939), to what working maids of the south were like, the only difference being that the maids were given a wage (which was in fact less than minimum wage.) A huge part of the narrative tells how the maids were closer to the children they tended to than their actual parents. The children of these families are raised by the maids, but the maids are in fact treated like slaves, not employees.

There are several four main ingredients that make up the narrative of this film; Skeeter, Aibileen, The white women of the community, and the racial atmosphere in Mississippi, Circa 1964.

Skeeter is the only person who seems to be courageous enough to not bend to peer pressure or the status quo. She treats others the way she wants to be treated, including people in the black community. As a child, Skeeter was extremely close to her family's maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), and that sub-plot is also a very key element of the film.  The leading role of Aibileen (powerfully played by Viola Davis) is sort of the unofficial leader to the rest of the maids in her community. It is though her strength that the rest of the maids follow in telling their stories for Skeeter's book. The character of Minny Jackson, (Octavia Spencer) brings what is probably the funniest scene to the entire film.  The cast of characters who portray the catty, southern white women in the film do a good job of showing how upper-class, white Mississippians carried themselves in those days. A good example of this is when Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) refuses to let her black maid use the same bathroom as her, then fires her for the offense.

In watching this film, you have to consider the racial climate of Mississippi in 1964. This was right at the height of the civil rights movement. The Help brings to light a different point of view in the struggle for equal rights. It tells a real human story about how hired help (the black community) was treated while The Jim Crow laws were still very much in  effect in 1964. In fact, there is a scene where some of those laws are read through narration, re-enforcing what Skeeter and the maids were doing was considered a crime. Viola Davis has already won several Lead Actress awards for her role in this picture. If she does not bring home the Oscar, I will be surprised.

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