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“We Gone and Done it Now!”

Movie Review: The Help (2011)
Summary: A southern town’s unspoken code of rules and behavior is shattered by three courageous women who strike up an unlikely friendship.
Spoilers: none

The Help is a fictional book-to-movie adaptation of a novel by Kathryn Stockett on the struggles of maids in pre-civil rights Mississippi in the early 1960s.

But with any book or movie focusing on the experiences of maids (with the words “pre-civil rights”, “Mississippi” and “1960s” used in a sentence together for a description) you should have every assurance that you won’t be made happy by the story.

The author was born in 1969, and we are told, grew up with a maid named Demitri. It was from Demitri that we have many of the recounted experiences of the characters. Our leading lady is “Aibileen Clark” (Viola Davis) who tells her story of tending to white children and cleaning their homes. After years of invested love, these raised children grow up and rarely fail to become just like their parents before them.

Aibileen knew she would be a maid. She was a maid because her mother was a maid, and her grandmother a house slave. Aileen’s close-nit black community seems to consist of more black women than men, and like Demitri’s experience with her real-life husband who was said to be an abusive alcoholic, we don’t have many good black men in the film. The maids, they have only “God,” their cooking, and each other to get them through hard times. This is the maids’ story, and once again, it is not a happy one.

Aibileen’s best friend is “Minny” (Octavia Spencer), an outspoken woman with her own stories that fall right in line with those of her lady friends. After being fired by a socialite racist, “Hilly Holbrook” (Bryce Dallas Howard) for using their in-house bathroom, Minny finds employment with “Celia” (Jessica Chastain), a woman of questionable social status.

Aileen and Minny are able to tell their stories in a book due to the prodding of one fresh college graduate girl wanting to begin a journalism career with whom they become friends. She is “Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan” (Emma Stone) who will settle for nothing less than hearing the ladies and putting their stories in a book that describes life from the maids’ point of view.

But Mississippi law forbids working to promote or publish black ideals, as well as whites working or collaborating to promote these beliefs. The hostile social environment makes this a struggle, accompanying the daily struggle of living, working, and just being black in a period when “coloreds” were often lynched for nothing more than retaliation to the message of civil rights activists.

This very long and emotionally filleting film drags its story through the Mississippi riots, the murder of black activists, and James Meredith’s attendance of the University of Mississippi with U.S. Federal Marshals at his side on order of the president.

As the story progresses, we hear more from President Kennedy; his exhortations and denunciations call out Mississippi for the state’s fathomless brutality and hatred. It is exceedingly difficult to watch the film with a dry eye, and on this note, the film is a raging, fiery success.

And that was the intent—to make you cry, to make you angry, and to make you laugh—all of which the film does well. There is just too much content for one movie. It could have been broken up into two or three sequels and probably would have fared better, with more focus on the main characters and their lives, and less on that favorite whipping post known as redneck hate politics.

But this is what the film wants you to do; you’re supposed to be angry with Mississippi for being not just a racist place, but a hellishly evil one. The film takes a sore subject and manipulates the viewer’s emotions in a nearly unethical way. The keen viewer will become aware of this over the course of the film's somewhat trying 2-hours+ run-time.

There is a scene where a maid is seeking a $75 loan to make up for being short on one of her kid’s college funds. The husband gets up and condescendingly walks out: “Whoa, I’m late!” His wife replies that someday she will thank her for being a Christian and not giving her what she wanted so she could work to earn it herself. This, combined with blacks kicked off of buses, police brutality, and accusations of theft are enough to make a viewer begin to feel exploited. They combined every known facet of button-pushing racial sensitivity and jammed into one movie.

Emma’s Skeeter, when not combatively opinionated, has a very wooden personality. She doesn’t express her own views on segregation or the racial divide. Her listening ear seems to show us a girl more concerned with advancing her journalism career than caring enough to get involved in real activism. We are left to wonder about her true feelings on the matter, but Stone holds the character with great strength.

Skeeter’s boyfriend, “Johnny” (Mike Vogel) is a fine supporting presence, one that starts off narrow and unfolds with increasing depth. The film’s wit is one of its more potent qualities, this being due to its well-written source material. I do not expect fans of the book to be disappointed with the film.

To go with its sadness, we get outstanding humor, a thing Octavia blesses the film with in a most forceful and unusual way. This was a good movie. It fell short of being a great movie simply because it tried too hard to do too much.

(JH)

Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R (for thematic material)
Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: “Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan” (Emma Stone), “Aibileen Clark” (Viola Davis), “Hilly Holbrook” (Bryce Dallas Howard), “Minny Jackson” (Octavia Spencer), “Charlotte Phelan” (Allison Janney), “Jolene French” (Anna Camp), “Mae Mobley” (Eleanor Henry), “Mae Mobley” (Emma Henry), “Stuart Whitworth” (Chris Lowell), “Constantine Jefferson” (Cicely Tyson)
Genre: Drama
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