Originally Reviewed – 8/30/2011
Newsflash to the world: It’s easy to be a white straight guy in America.
Despite growing up as one of a few Irish/Polish kids in a neighborhood of Italians, I’ve never once been discriminated against. Picked on for my big dorky glasses? Sure. Made fun of for my lack of kick ball skills? You bet. Forced to drink from a different water fountain just because I was born with a darker skin tone than the government accepted race? Not ever. Despite my heart knowing that such prejudice is a weakness in spirit and an absolute wrong, I’ve never been personally subjected to it. Sure, I can go on for hours about equal rights for gays and modern day socioeconomics. Yes, I’ve seen a fair share of filmstrips in school about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. And, oh boy, I’ve seen plenty of movies that have decried the injustice of racism from all sides of the issue. Despite all that exposure, the fact of the matter is, I’ve never felt the pain of discrimination. Never been told that I can’t take a piss in a certain bathroom, never had my choice of marriage partner legislated by a government, never been forced to live a life of inequality. However, thanks to the personal stories and heartfelt acting of the women in The Help, I not only feel more connected to the pain these victims of discrimination had to endure, I feel as though I’ve been on a journey with these amazing survivors, experiencing their hardships, trials and ultimate triumph in a way I can only describe as magical.
Featuring the finest female cast from any movie so far this year, The Help tells the tale of a group of African American maids toiling their days away in the segregated South. The focal point of the story surrounds two of these laborers, Minny, played by Octavia Spencer and her best friend, the amazing Viola Davis. Working in separate households, a plucky young writer by the name of “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) comes back to her childhood home of Jackson, Mississippi to discover with new eyes the injustice around her, primarily at the hands of local socialite Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Partly to help get her a job at a fancy New York publication and mostly because the racial injustice around her has worsened since she was a child, Skeeter starts to write a book telling the true stories, both good and bad, of the women who serve the Southern class elite.
Note my use of the term “good and bad” because, above all things, that is what this movie does brilliantly. First time director Tate Taylor does a wonderful job of telling both sides of the tale, giving the audience humor, drama and excitement in equal measure. Civil rights movies are often heavy handed in their treatment of the subject but The Help balances out the natural tension with some much needed comedy. The result is a film that will have you weeping one moment and laughing the next, poetically dancing between the two extremes. Taylor also does a fine job in giving his actors space to breathe, feel and live the moments on screen. Too many directors these days rely on quick cuts and jumpy editing to tell their stories but Taylor directs with a steady hand, filling the screen with stunningly heartfelt moments that never cross the line to melodrama.
That said, good actors doing great work in those long drawn moments make The Help one of the finest films of the year. Each actress in the film works the tightly balanced script to perfection, mining comedic gold one moment and heartfelt emotion the next. In one of the more difficult roles in the film, Howard could have played the prissy Hilly Holbrook as a pure villain but makes a brave decision to humanize the character. Much like many of the people living during this era, Holbrook thinks she is completely in the right when it comes to segregation, and in peppering the character with this unwavering sense of self righteousness, Howard makes the character bearable even when she’s committing hateful acts, a real feat by an actress I’d love to see more of. In the role of Skeeter, Emma Stone reaffirms herself as a quickly rising star in Hollywood, portraying the spunky journalist with a brave gentility mixed with heartfelt empathy. The scene stealer of the film, however, has to be Spencer as baker extraordinaire, Minny. Jumping from dogged determination to gut wrenching fear and always with a sharp comic edge, Spencer will make you forget she’s the subject of grave injustice simply in the way she laughs with her friends, cracks wise to her superiors and takes big handfuls of life. Not to give anything away, but there’s one uproariously fantastic moment in the film that will sure to dominate the post film conversation. Just have two words for you: Two Slices.
In a cast filled with brilliant acting, though, it’s Viola Davis who takes the main prize. In what is sure to be an Oscar nominated role, Davis expresses a range of emotions in her character. Nervous about helping a white woman write a taboo book yet emboldened at the thought of her story being told, Davis is tasked with tapping into a wide range of emotions and to her credit, never falters once. Viola Davis shocked the word with her one scene turn 2008’s Doubt and if you loved her in that role, this time around you get an entire film’s worth of excellence. Quite simply, if you cherish good film acting, Viola Davis in The Help is a slam dunk must see.
If you follow my reviews with any frequency, you know I don’t pass out 100% scores very often. To get that marker, you must be near perfect and The Help is exactly that: a near perfectly realized labor of love that wells up the tears, tickles the funny bone and feeds the soul. In fact, that’s the one phrase I can use to sum up The Help: a labor of love. Directed by the very good friend of the book’s author, featuring family members in supporting roles and acted by performers who obviously felt the weight and magic of the material, this film more than lives up to the hit book it was based on. Every actor from the main cast, to the supporters to even the few male roles sprinkled throughout give the film their absolute all, creating an experience that is a triumph of acting, of heart and of soul.
Films of this quality usually get released around awards season, a time when the air gets colder, the films turn arty and audiences have long forgotten their local cineplexes. The fact that this movie is not just competing with the Marvel movies and action flicks of the summer season, but beating them in the box office, is a testament to the quiet beauty of this amazing piece of filmmaking. Much more than a Disney-fied retelling of early sixties race relations, The Help is a remarkable film that should garner more than few Oscar nominations come January.
And while I still can’t say I know firsthand what it’s like being discriminated against, me being a straight white male in America and all, I think I can now say I at least understand what those brave people went through. A remarkable accomplishment for a remarkable movie.
Score – 100%