By Adele MacGregor
Set in Mississippi during the Sixties at the height of segregation, The Help is based on the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, inspired by the African-American maids who raised white children in the South.
The film stars actress Emma Stone (Easy A, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) playing Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a young aspiring writer from Jackson, Mississippi who takes a position at the ‘Jackson Journal’ writing a cleaning advice column. Having been raised and cared for by an African American woman all her life, Skeeter turns to two maids (played by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis) in Jackson for help in writing and producing her column.
Having never considered the life of ‘the help’ before, Skeeter sets about detailing and documenting the lives of these women, seeing beyond the Southern life of belles, babies and beaus. With a true style of her own, Stone’s wonderful performance captures Skeeter’s character magnificently; intelligent and witty whilst always remaining believable and sincere.
Skeeter provides the mirror opposite to the belles of Jackson, in particular an old school friend, Hilly Holbrook (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, Spider-Man 3). Disturbed by the “the coloured situation”, Hilly begins campaigning for separate bathrooms, outside of the house, for ‘the help’. Openly racist, vindictive and false, Hilly’s character provides a key example of an ignorant young white woman living in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement.
Hilly poisons the community with her bitterness and hatred towards a race of people who not only raise her children, but who raised Hilly herself. Horrified by the casual racism of her peers, her relationship with her own maid and the heartbreaking stories told by the maids in Jackson, Skeeter collects accounts of life working for white families in the hope of producing a book exposing the reality of race relations in the South.
The Help boasts strong performances from the entire cast and an epic soundtrack that includes Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley and Johnny Cash. The film is captivating, informative and although the subject matter is undoubtedly distressing, the script is sprinkled with a generous dose of humour without straying from the core issues of the film.
The Help is, at times, guilty of sugar coating, often wholeheartedly embracing the myth of the adored ‘Mammy’ figure in the Southern white household, previously portrayed in well loved classics such as ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, conveniently misremembering the past. Many may also feel that the film lacks a certain bite, more ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ than ‘Mississippi Burning’. There are only very subtle references to racial violence in the film, suggesting a box office conscious production team behind the film.
Nevertheless, the harsh reality of African-American women’s lives is detailed with close historical accuracy, portraying the famous Southern hospitality that would never extend to ‘the help’ and the fighting spirit of intelligent and determined African-American women, far removed from the classic misrepresentation of the jolly house slave of bygone years. The overall result is an immensely enjoyable film, both believable and beautiful from start to finish.
9 OUT OF 10