It’s easy to see why The Help, a rousing melodrama about racial prejudice set in 1960s Mississippi, became an instant crowd-pleaser when it released in the United States this summer. Like 2009’s shrewdly sentimental Sandra Bullock starrer The Blind Side, this is a patronizing tale that addresses white guilt and cleverly mitigates it.
To be fair though, The Help is genuinely moving, it has moments of delightful humor, and it’s held together by two spectacular performances that make it an easily likeable film despite its flaws.
Emma Stone stars as Skeeter, an aspiring journalist in Jackson, Mississippi, determined to document the life experiences of African-American maids who face all kinds of humiliation and bigotry at the hands of the white folks they work for. Defying her upper-class background, and angering her insensitive friends, Skeeter conducts a series of secret interviews with these long-suffering domestics, who describe what it’s like to dedicate one’s life to raising white people’s children, while struggling for time and money to look after their own.
Viola Davis plays Aibileen, a maid who works for Skeeter’s best friend, and the first to volunteer for this project which sees several black women meeting on the sly to tell their personal stories. Davis puts you through the wringer, using her eyes and her expressions to communicate years of fear and oppression, and it’s hard to hold back the waterworks when she reveals the tragic story of her offspring. The second winning performance is delivered by Octavia Spencer who plays Minny, a feisty black maid belittled by her racist employer (Bryce Dallas Howard). Prone to a bad temper and tantrums, it’s impossible not to root for Minny as she gets her revenge on her smug boss.
The Help knows exactly which buttons to push and when. There are some sympathetic white characters played by Sissy Spacek and Jessica Chastain, but for the most part the film banks on the resonance it’s likely to strike with audiences everywhere, and the sense of guilt and shame it evokes. Far from perfect, the film’s disturbing suggestion that it took a white woman to mobilize the black maids into speaking up for themselves, seems to undermine the very point of the story.
Yet the film works because it’s well-intentioned, and its sincerity comes through despite its shortcomings. I’m going with three out of five for The Help. It’s a feel-good entertainer about a sensitive, prickly issue. Watch it for its solid acting.