The first serious 2012 Oscar contender for best picture is “The Help.” This all-female cast sets the bar high for acting, supported by Tate Taylor’s strong direction with rock solid story telling of liberation and courage that equals, and often surpasses, Kathryn Stocket’s 2009 bestseller.
“The Help” is a deeper reflection of race relations in the South. Set in Jackson, Miss. at the dawn of civil rights, it intertwines the lives of white families with their black maids. The main character, Abilene (Viola Davis) was the daughter of a maid and the granddaughter of a slave servant. The film is told through her eyes, flashing signs of obedience and kindness at her duties but with a tinge of unspoken protest. Davis breathes depth into a character that could have been a stereotype in lesser hands. Her fellow maid-in-arms Minny, played with feisty fearlessness by Octavia Spencer, form the circle for the women who interact with them. It is like watching a merry-go-round to see who gets on and off.
Under Emma Stone’s capable guidance, Skeeter, a budding writer interested in telling the maids’ stories, represents the break with the past as a new American woman started to emerge. She does not agree with the back-of-the bus attitude typical of Hilly Holbrook, brilliantly played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Hilly even starts a local movement to make certain the maids cannot use the same bathrooms as whites. However, the interplay between Hilly and her maid, Minny, provide some of the film’s best dramatic and comic moments. Then Minny’s growing awareness of the Civil Rights propels her to use a white bathroom as a sign of protest, which results in Minny losing her job.
“The Help” is populated with wonderful performances from great actresses, such as Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother suffering with cancer, Jessica Chastain as Celia, a busty blonde ala Marilyn Monroe who hires Minny, and Sissy Spacek‘s ultra-conservative, passive-aggressive mom of Hilly.
One of the hallmark’s of a great film is the look and feel; does it faithfully create the time and place. In “The Help”, the answer is a resounding YES. It has the look and feel of 1960s in the South. You can smell the peach cobbler; hear the snap of the cotton sheets and chuckle at high hair-dos and pearl chokers.
Not since “Steel Magnolias” has an all-female cast brought such believable and heart-wrenching women to the screen. “The Help” has the potential to be a watershed film for actresses of color and women-theme movies overall - about time!
“The purpose of “The Help” is not to retell the Civil Rights struggle through a political prism of the maids‘ stories. Instead, it focuses on the simple humanity of hard-working women who quietly helped change the course of American history one peach cobbler at a time.
Run Time: 2 hours 17 minutes