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The Help (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Curiously, The Help works as a film — it can reach inside and grab us, sending us away as better people with deeper hearts to resist thinking ourselves superior. I say “curiously” because it has a major filmcraft weakness that doesn’t seem to work against it: The characters are nearly all portrayed as black or white (pun unavoidable). Perhaps it is the setting or maybe the issue itself, but despite the caricatures, the film is engaging and real.

It’s the early 1960s in the US south in Jackson, Mississippi. Fresh from college, white girl Skeeter Phelan is looking for work. With some spunk, she lands a job with the local newspaper, but her assignment — a column on housecleaning — isn’t much up to her heart to make an impact with her writing. Still, taking to the task, she asks the African-American maid of a friend to help her out. As Skeeter’s focus is turned to the maids, she becomes increasingly troubled by how her friends treat their maids. She pitches the idea of a book, written in the maids’ voices, to a big time publisher, who gives tentative support. But Skeeter has a problem: The maids are reluctant to talk, since it can cost them their livelihoods. If they don’t talk, there’s no book. She pleads and prods, but it will take something significant to change their minds. Running time: 146 min.

Perhaps the answer to my curiosity about The Help’s power despite cinematic weakness is this: Maybe it’s hard for a well-intended film about racism to not carry power for a viewer of good will. On the other hand, there is nothing caricatured about the actions of the white people in the film, it’s mainly their mannerisms that are exaggerated. As to the maids, the film paints them as veritable saints, with heavenly wisdom and no faults and, even if they were indeed perfect saints, they would no doubt have still been treated exactly the same. So, even with its failings, the power of The Help’s questions comes through: How solid is the basis upon which we consider a person to be one of “our people”? Why do we even categorize people that way? What personal sacrifices are we willing to make to speak out against injustice? What peer pressures do we allow to push us to being ugly in our ways? Even when race is not part of it, in what ways do we consider ourselves better than others, finding them unworthy of love and friendship?

Considering that The Help has power despite weakness, I must then ask myself: Are the caricatures actually a cinematic weakness? I still think so, but not as strongly — as they are, it is a bit too easy to say to oneself, “I’m not like that.” Be that as it may, the rest of The Help’s filmcraft is good. The acting is strong, sometimes muting the black-or-white characterizations. The story and pacing are strong, carrying a range of emotions from the sublime to the ridiculous. The film handles well the elements of racial injustice in the 1960s US south that it selects to depict.

All in all, The Help is very much worth the time, and for a broad audience. We need constant reminders of our tendency to think and act as superior to others, and this film touches that tendency from more than one angle.

The Help is frequently emotionally intense, particularly when racism turns toward violent actions. Although very little of the violence is shown onscreen, we hear enough of it. One character plays a very crude practical joke on another person. There is a relatively small bit of language, including certain racial slurs.

  • Director: Tate Taylor
  • Screenplay: Tate Taylor, based on novel by Kathryn Stockett
  • Leads: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O'Reilly, Allison Janney
  • Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
  • Music: Thomas Newman

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