A Helpful Start
Raised in Jackson, Mississippi Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is one of many girls who in truth were not raised by their mums but by their coloured maids, in her case it was Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson) who was more of a mother to her than her real mum Charlotte (Allison Janney). But whilst Skeeter is more open minded and disgusted by racism she still has to listen to the racism of others in her group who were raised by maids and treat them like slaves such as Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who wants more segregation. Wanting to make it as a journalist Skeeter persuades maids Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) to be interviewed about what it was like to work for the white folk and raise their children.
I've skimmed over a few reviews of "The Help" as I looked for information on it and saw comments ranging from this is how it was to this is too watered down and family friendly. Maybe those opinions are both right, maybe for some this was how it was whilst for others they remembered the era as being much worse. The thing is that I can't tell you because I am a Brit, born at the start of the 70s and never been to America and so can't pass judgement on the authenticity of "The Help".
But what I will tell you about "The Help" whether or not realistic or not it will open your eyes and make you think. When you hear Skeeter ask Aibileen what it was like to raise a white child when your own child was at home being raised by someone else, you find yourself thinking about how that was having maybe never having thought about it before. You will also feel sickened by the blatant racism of the likes of Hilly who spouts her calls for more segregation right in front of Aibileen. There is more and you are made aware of how dangerous it was for Aibileen to talk about what it was like being a maid.
The thing is that even someone who wasn't around when this was going on can spot this is a movie which uses wide strokes to tell the story. But for me that works because whilst we get the aspects of racism and the divide between the maids and the white women they worked for as well as the hardships that these maids faced it also throws in lighter moments. When the sassy Minny Jackson goes to work for the air headed and bubbly Celia Foote the comedy of these two is priceless, in fact many of the scenes which feature Minny provide the movie with plenty of comic relief but without ruining the movies depth, making it accessible to a wider audience.
As for the acting well Emma Stone is solid whilst Bryce Dallas Howard is shocking in a good way as is Jessica Chastain in the opposite but also good way. But the stars of "The Help" are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer with Davis bringing the seriousness of the era to the story, that sense of fear of reprisals for participating in the book as well as what it was like generally. And then there is Spencer who as mentioned as Minny provides plenty of the movies lighter moments but also has her share of impact scenes.
What this all boils down to is that in many ways "The Help" is for people like me who weren't around during the era that it was set. It opens your eyes but does so in a way which isn't so hard hitting that it might become too much. It almost feels like this movie is an introduction to the era and issues which will lead a youthful audience to learn more and uncover the grittier movies which tackle the subject of racism during the 60s.