With a hot button issue like the civil rights movement in Mississipi as the focal point, you would think that THE HELP would run on the preachy side of the argument. It doesn’t preach, and it doesn’t rehash the same stories and figures we’ve seen a million times before. Instead, the product is actually a lovely look a the unsung heroes of the movement - the average women just trying to live their lives through the worst of it.
The film takes a lighter hand to the civil rights unrest than usual by focusing on a small group of ladies in the heart of Mississippi and how it affects their every day lives, instead of on the larger figures that take part. It’s not through marching or protesting, but rather though the seemingly innocent act of telling their stories as “the help” in these white households that they achieve notable change.
The strong performances from Viola Davis (Abileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minnie) give this film the emotional weight needed to get the audience invested in these characters and their plight. Portraying the two maids who first agree to talk to Skeeter (played by Emma Stone), we are completely on board with their love for the white children they help raise and the slow burning hatred for the mothers as they continually diminish their lives with Jim Crow laws like “separate but equal” outdoor bathrooms for them.
Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain put in great performances as completely opposite characters. Casting these two ladies who look very similar had to be on purpose. Hilly (Howard) is the most vile of all the upper class young Jackson ladies, while Celia (Chastain) is the flighty, innocent, and more racially accepting neighbor. Howard’s Hilly as the alpha-bitch is pitch perfect and completely believable, just toeing the line of being too evil to become one-dimensional.
The book and film seem to be surrounded in controversial, but while watching I was completely swept away in the story. These ladies’ stories were full of heart, love, and pain. They loved the children they cared for, they loved the families the spent their days with, but the families didn’t always share this feeling. Some saw them as members of the family, others saw them as barely better than the slaves they were generations ago. Jackson, Mississippi was among the worst in race relations, as they continue to be today, but there are a few shining examples of progressive thought in the film like Celia and Skeeter. While they still took part in having black help from the poor side of town, they looked at them as equals and deserving of the same respect and friendship as their white neighbors.
It’s controversy isn’t in it’s 1960’s setting, it’s in the fact that this message still resonates today. There’s a moment in the film where Skeeter’s prospective publisher Elaine Stein recommends she finishes the book “before this whole civil rights thing blows over” and it got a few laughs from the crowd present, since it’s so apparent that the quest for equal rights is still alive today just in a less overt way than the Martin Luther King Jr. march on Washington, D.C., Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam movement, or Huey Newton’s Black Panthers. It’s because it still exists that this movie should be seen. It shows how far we’ve come, but at the same time highlights that we haven’t made as much progress as I’m sure the 1960s envisioned we would by 2011.
When THE HELP comes out on Wednesday, August 10, go see it. It’s a great flick to both uplift your spirits because of the progress these women made, but shine a light on the fact that we just aren’t quite past this yet. The emotional journey these women go on is fully engrossing, and rings true to the point that you feel it along with them. It’s a lovely film with strong female performances that should be seen.