REVIEW: The Help
Starring: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director: Tate Taylor
Towards the latter half of The Help, a group of black maids are seen reflecting on the dangers they might face for contributing to a book that documents their suffering in America's segregated South. It's then that the most outspoken of them, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), says: 'We're not doing civil rights - we're just telling stories like they happened.'
The line sums up The Help well - but, unfortunately, not in a positive sense. Based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel, Tate Taylor's film tells its story well through sound narrative and solid acting amid the believable recreation of small-town ambience of early 1960s America. At the same time, however, it's also a mild, meek and manipulative piece that doesn't properly address the real tribulations and travails of individuals living during those times.
What The Help offers is more a Mississippi that learns rather than burns, in contrast to Alan Parker's 1988 film - a feel-bad film about the murderous injustice prevalent in a state where the Ku Klux Klan ran wild.
The Help casts a more benign eye on the racism of that period, with the most extreme case in the film being an initiative put forward to legislate for the black house help to use separate toilets from their employers for 'sanitation' purposes. The more brutal aspects of life for the black community back then only unfurls off-screen as background noise.
It's amidst all this that the story's feel-good friendships unfold, as aspiring young white journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) - disgusted by the racism in her hometown - works with Minny and the long-suffering Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, near left with Stone and Spencer) to write a book revealing the suffering of 'the help', the apparently neutral term white people give to their black servants. Positioned to offer some closure about racial reconciliation, this bond actually only leads The Help into feel-good, conscience-soothing territory that the film should have steered away from.
The Help opens today