Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer
Release Date: 28th October
If there was any doubt as to where civil rights movie The Help is set, the first scene certainly clarifies the issue. Johnny Cash’s classic ‘Jackson’ leads us into the opening sequence and into segregationist 1960s Mississippi, where white upper-class women are sitting around playing bridge while quiet and obedient black housemaids work in the background.
One such housemaid is Aibileen (Viola Davis), a woman who cooks fabulous meals, but is forbidden to eat in white company. She cleans houses from top to bottom but is not allowed to use white people’s bathrooms. Her main occupation is caring for the children of the white housewives, who rarely acknowledge the existence of either her or her charges.
Eventually Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young progressive college graduate, comes to the fore and decides to write a daring novel from the perspective of these underappreciated servants. Although reluctant at first, both Aibileen and her friend, from ‘Church Circle’, Minny (Octavia Spencer), give Skeeter their accounts of their subjugated lives as housemaids.
Herein lays the problem with The Help. By having Skeeter as the outlet for the housemaids, the movie implies that it took an educated upper-middle-class white woman to initiate the civil rights movement in Mississippi by deciding to write this book. Furthermore, the movie takes a rather melodramatic approach to what is a delicate subject. It appears that racial tension is played out by characters consistently trying to outdo each other; the white characters push for a bill of segregation in bathrooms, the black characters shit in their cakes.
Although there are moments that are heartfelt and genuinely touching, the movie insists on throwing more issues at you, including broken relationships, neglected children and cancer, to ensure it evokes a reaction. What is most troubling however is that the issues of the white characters are given the same weight as the burdens of the black characters, leaving the central idea lost in a melodramatic mess.
This portrayal of 1960s America is consistently uncomfortable and sometimes insulting in that it is never truly affecting, despite the best efforts of the upper-middle class women of Mississippi.
In a Nutshell: A Desperate Housewives approach to the most important social movement in American history.