“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” This is such an important message to give to our children, and such a significant reminder to our adult selves. That when things or people around you get you down, you always have to remember your own worth, you need to have faith in what you can do. And while being reminded of your strengths is vital, vulnerability is an important asset too, but African-American people were not given the time and space to be vulnerable, to share their grief and the inhumanity they were put through. Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer-starrer The Help shows how they were given that chance by literally putting everything they held dear on line in the 2011 movie.
The Help is based on the book of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. It is set in 1963, Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. The narrative focuses on two domestic workers — Viola Davis’ Aibileen and Octavia Spencer’s Minny, who in collaboration with Emma Stone’s Skeeter, help bring about some change in the then racist town. The intention here is clear and honourable, to bring forth the perspective of the oppressed. But before we talk about the good parts, it is important to throw light on The Help’s problematic points. First is of course the fact that the movie (I have not read the book) suffers from what is commonly called the ‘White Saviour Complex.’ Emma’s Skeeter is shown as the courageous one who writes the book on the maids in her hometown, it is she who is shown to have this brilliant idea and therefore it is Skeeter, the young and privileged white female, who is ultimately labelled the heroine.
Her story and her compassion is what is seemingly given the primary arc. And while other characters too are rounded, complex people, she certainly seems to be the one with the most layers and the most meat. That is the projection and that is an issue with a movie which claims to bring the other side to the screen. Also, despite the fact that Skeeter’s maid Constantine is shown to have such an effect on the protagonist, we are just told that after getting fired by Skeeter’s mother, she died of old age and a ‘broken heart.’ What happens to her daughter Rachel who had come to visit her? And how can Skeeter so easily forgive her mother with all the righteousness that she has in place? Some will say people forgive things when death is near (Skeeter’s mother was suffering from cancer), while others will point out that you can show only so much in a 2.5 hours movie. And these people might be partly right, but even then the film barely scratches the surface when it comes to actually depicting the horrors the Black people had to undergo at the time.
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But there is one pivotal redeeming quality of The Help — its wonderful group of actors. While this might be one of those rare serious performances of Emma Stone with little comedic flavour in it, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were phenomenal. Viola especially in the way she embodied the large-hearted but firm Aibileen was simply stellar. Her sequence with the little girl she is charged to take care of is both sweet and touching, and the part where she talks of her son’s death is heartbreaking. Jessica Chastain’s Celia was immensely likeable, while Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly made you really hate her. Everybody else fit their roles to the T, a rarity in huge ensemble pieces.
The Help won both critical and commercial acclaim post its release. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won one; Octavia Spencer took home the golden statuette for her winsome performance. The film minted a whopping 217 million dollars of its modest 25 million dollar budget.