The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011)

What's it about? Set in 1960s Mississippi, where idealistic young journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) wants to write about the experiences of the African-American maids in her hometown, including world-weary Aibileen (Viola Davis) and sassy Minny (Octavia Spencer). However, the class and racial divides in the town provide several obstacles. Will they have the courage to tell their story?


Is it any good? It's been a long while since I watched a film with barely a single important male character. In this film, men are pretty much sidelined throughout and it is a range of female characters that take central stage, portrayed by an impressive cast, which also includes Bryce Dallas Howard (spiteful alpha female), Jessica Chastain (ditzy wife), Sissy Spacek and Alison Janney (maternal figureheads). And bless their pretty little heads, don't they all do well! So it's a pity that this film is only slightly less patronising than that last statement. It's earnest enough and handsomely staged, but it all feels like a rather sanitised version of the topic, content to paint the story in broad brush-strokes and struggling to develop all those female characters beyond simple caricature. In its simplistic, diplomatic attempt to present all sides of the story, it also ends up with a rather muddled moral compass. Who are we supposed to feel most sympathy for here? The privileged white girl who loses the maid who raised her? The black maid mourning her dead son? The ostracised white trash character, who cannot have children? The black victim of domestic abuse? Or the other quickly-sketched characters who populate the story? As a result, our emotions are spread too thinly, so a film which should have you weeping into your three hankies ends up as a rather superficial, soapy melodrama. That said, it's all entertaining enough, with some crowd-pleasing moments, but it's hard not to feel that there was a more powerful story in there, if only someone had had the courage to tell it. Wait a minute, why does that sound familiar?

I don't trust you. What do others think? Built up a head of steam to feature heavily in 2011-12 awards season, with Spencer winning approximately 800 Supporting Actress awards. Presumably she was singled out from the rest of the cast because she got to deliver a couple of those 'Mmmmm-hmmmm' eye-rolling moments, so beloved of big mommas the world over. However, as you might expect, such an air-brushed account of the black maids' experience was never likely to win over black women or historians, or Black Women Historians for that matter. The general consensus was that, for all the good intentions and acting, it's probably best treated as a bit of light entertainment, rather than an accurate protrayal of racial injustice at the time.

What does the Fonz think? Not so much Mississippi burning, as Mississippi undercooked.





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