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The Help (2011)
The Help is a 2011 comedy-drama film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name, adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor. The film is an ensemble piece about a young white woman, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, and her relationship with two black maids during Civil Rights era America (the early 1960s). Skeeter is a journalist who decides to write a controversial book from the point of view of the maids (referred to as "the help"), exposing the racism they are faced with as they work for white families. The film is set in Jackson, Mississippi, and stars Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogel, Mary Steenburgen, and Allison Janney. Produced by DreamWorks Pictures and distributed by Touchstone Pictures, The Help opened to positive reviews and became a massive box office success with a gross of $211.6 million against its budget of $25 million. In February 2012, the film received four Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture and acting nods for Davis, Chastain, and a win for Supporting Actress for Spencer.
The Help is a masterful emotional epic with equal parts crowd-pleasing joy and shattering, complex pain. It paints in broad strokes, yet beautifully renders each minute detail. It is structured within a thoroughly traditional framework, yet its themes color outside the lines. These seeming contradictions are quite fitting, for this is a piece of cinema about the beauty, the pain, the profoundly perplexing and indefinable nature of living in an ever-changing world, a world in which love and hate fight to exist in equal measure. The Help is about the struggle to celebrate the love and eradicate the hate -- a struggle that started well before the film's 1960s setting and continues through today and beyond.
Based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel, the film tells a story of divisions, most specifically in terms of race, but also divisions of class and of gender. Clearly, prejudice and subjugation were common threads during this period of ignorance in our country's history; however, The Help digs far deeper than just the story of abuse against African-American maids in 60s-era Mississippi. This is a film about women -- all women, from the ones who are well aware of their mistreatment to others whose humanity has been abused in quieter, more insidious ways. It is a film that cares to expose not only the horrible suffering of "the help," but also the strains of hate that become ingrained in the people who inflict that suffering. The movie dares to draw parallels across class and racial lines, showing that even the purposely segregated are really not that different.
The year's most extraordinary ensemble of women populates the cast, and they are all just about perfect. Emma Stone infuses the film with her patented offbeat verve as Skeeter, who wrestles to be a high-society Southern belle but who seems to grasp compassion moreso than the rest of her community. Returning from college invigorated to become an 'important writer,' she quickly latches onto a controversial subject: exploring the plight of Mississippi's African-American maids by gaining their first-person perspective. Talking with 'the help' is tantamount to heresy, and the mere thought of probing the topic shutters Skeeter's inner circle, led by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, in the most powerful performance of her career), a nasty little snit whose hatred runs so deep she abuses her maids for sport.
Nonetheless, Skeeter sparks an interest from two local maids. Aibileen (Viola Davis) is tormented every day by the unjust death of her son, whom she spent less time with than the children of the white families who employed her. She understands the seeming futility of her suppressed life and it eats away at her. Minny (Octavia Spencer) is equally weathered and wise but with a fiery demeanor that leads to her being fired by the cruel Hilly.
After an initial reluctance, Aibileen and Minny agree to share their stories with Skeeter, in an attempt to create a book that would fully expose the inhumanity of their Mississippi town and with it the outward racism of the country at large. In the process, it becomes clear -- to the audience, if not all of the characters -- that there is a far wider swath of subjugated people than just the maids. Skeeter is increasingly shunned for breaking the social code. Hilly is beholden to her own deep insecurity, having been forced into a bland marriage when the man she loved abandoned her. And the woman she suspects he left her for, the sweetly naive Celia (Jessica Chastain, in the second of her long string of brilliant 2011 performances), is made an outcast for being a bombshell, such an outsider that she doesn't even think to treat her new maid, Minny, with anything other than love. We often think of this late-'50s, early-'60s time period as a "simpler time" at the precipice of the Civil Rights movement, but in truth, there was a hierarchical structure designed to suppress anyone deemed even remotely 'other.' The maids were slaves to resentful housewives, who themselves were slaves to the husbands who ignored them.
There might, perhaps, be a harsher, uglier version of The Help, one in which the camera doesn't cut away from violence, or in which the consequences of actions were much bleaker. However, there is no version that could more affectingly convey the depth of emotion, the sting of prejudice, the truth of frail humanity other than this one. Written for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor with uncommon insight and intimacy, the film is a long, winding road of small victories over large obstacles, moments of elation amid a seemingly insurmountable depression. "Change begins with a whisper" reads the movie's tagline, and in even a meager attempt to reach out, any slight intention to create a community among all people, there is hope for a better world. We care about these characters in this historical context, looking back with a perspective on how far we've come. And yet as the sun sets and the credits roll, we remember how far these characters had -- and how far we still have -- to go.