The Help

Emma Stone (left), Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help."

Based on the best selling novel by Kathryn Sockett, “The Help” is an enjoyable, funny yet poignant, authentic looking period piece, set in pre Civil Rights era Jackson Mississippi, in the early 1960s.  The world Sockett portrayed on the page, with all of its unforgettable characters, has been fully realized by a stellar cast which includes Emma Stone (“Friends with Benefits”), Viola Davis (“Doubt”), Octavia Spencer (“Dinner for Shmucks”), Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and many others.

Stone plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white 23-year-old liberal minded college graduate.  Skeeter, as she is called, is an aspiring writer and Jackson resident, who wants to write a book about the experiences of the African American maids who work for the well-to-do white residents of Jackson.  The maids do everything for their employers: raise the children, cook the meals, clean the houses and buy the groceries.  For all this, the culture marginalizes them.  The maids are not even allowed to use the bathrooms of the very houses in which they work.  They are given separate facilities.

Skeeter develops friendships with Aibileen (Davis) and Minny (Spencer), two African American maids who agree to tell Skeeter their stories for her book, an amazingly perilous thing to do in Jim Crow Mississippi.  The story also involves Skeeter’s relationship with her mother and various neighbors in Jackson.  We also get to know the back-stories of Aibileen and Minny.

While there is a lot of “story” here, the filmmakers and cast have done a nimble job of juggling the screenplay’s many elements.  The result is that they manage to fit everything neatly into the film’s two-hour plus running time, not an easy thing to do in adaptations.

Although fiction, “The Help” is based on actual incidents from Sockett’s life.  Often, fiction can be used to illuminate a greater truth, and that is certainly the case here.  I think it is a matter of, “If this is not the way things happened, then it is the way things should have happened.”

One thing for which I was glad was that “The Help” did not turn into the all too familiar, “White person helps the minority members, who could not have done it on their own,” type of story (examples of this include 1988’s “Mississippi Burning,” “Invictus,” 2009, and “The Blind Side,” 2009).  Even though Skeeter comes up with the idea to express the maids’ experience, we are shown events from the maids’ points of view, not Skeeter’s.  It is also made very clear that it is the maids who are taking the real risk here, by speaking out.

“The Help” is a faithful rendering of the book upon which it is based.  It has been beautifully produced and well acted.

“The Help” is playing locally at City Cinemas Village East (located at 181 2nd Avenue), AMC Theatres 19th Street East (located at 890 Broadway), and AMC Loews Kips Bay Theatres (located at 570 2nd Avenue).

The Help, Director Tate Taylor, 2011,

Dreamworks, 137 minutes, rated PG-13


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on August 16, 2011, in New. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I read the book right before I saw the movie and I loved them both! I’m always glad I’ve read the book first, but sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day to get in all the reading. Thanks for reminding me what Viola Davis had done because I was too lazy to look it up and find out it was “Doubt”. She was excellent.

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