Monday, August 29, 2011

The Help - Winds of Change

Set in a time when the civil rights movement had gathered momentum in America, 'The Help' is a tale of how life was in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. A time when every white household employed the services of the black help. When white kids were raised by the help, when the food in every white household was put on the table by the help, when the help who raised a white family was forbidden to use the same bathroom as them, when there was a separate entrance at the grocers for them, when they were known to carry diseases just by virtue of their skin color. A time we can all look back in shame with. Based on Kathryn Stockett's best selling novel and adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, 'The Help' is a picture of the harsh realities of the African American domestic service seen though rose hued glasses. Reality treated with a little Hollywood gloss.

Aibileen (Viola Davis) has helped raise 17 white kids. Her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave. Her latest is the little girl of Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly). She tells that the child is smart, kind and important to soothe the little ones tears. It is almost as if she is reminding herself. Aibileen is part of an army of African American women who wake up each morning, to don their uniforms and leave their own homes and children behind to look after the homes and children of their white employers. Aibileen's weary eyes have tales to tell. The newly returned white college graduate and wannabe writer Skeetar Phelan (Emma Stone) wants to write the stories of Aibileen and other such women. In a changing world, she sees through the atrocities of her friends stuck with old prejudices.

There is also the sassy, smart mouthed Minny (Octavia Spencer) who works for the evil society bigot Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her mother, played with tremendous spunk by Sissy Spacek. Things go wrong over the use of the in house bathroom and Minny finds herself without a job. She extracts her revenge in one of the funniest sequences of the movie and then goes to work for the town's outcast Celia (Jessica Chastain) and an amazing bond forms between the two amidst some humorous sequences and then some heartwarming ones. Minny and Aibileen become the voices of Skeeter's book and circumstances induce a dozen other women to come open with their stories. Of their times and travails as the help.

Of course we are as aware as them that when the book comes out, though anonymous, there shall be consequences. But they will find their voice in a world where they are not accustomed to being heard. Kathryn Stockett's book, though highly engrossing, did somewhat gloss over the severe nature of life in Mississippi then, being a tad simplistic. The movie which is a wonderful adaptation, something I cannot say for most big screen adaptation of books, suffers from lack of focus of the big picture as well. But as a story about the prejudiced society ladies, their black help and the one white young woman who embodies the change needed, it is a triumph. Very few books have been well adapted to the screen, so full marks to Tate Taylor on a job well done. He brings his own vision to the movie yet keeps the author's words alive. But what truly brightens the skyline of 'The Help' is its wonderful ensemble of actors.

Spearheading the cast and the one who truly steals the show is Viola Davis. In her Aibileen, we see a face that carries a myriad of emotions, the pain of her life, the loss of her son and yet the hope to be the change much needed in a society caught up in a racial time warp. She is so real and effective in her portrayal, it is easy to dismiss her act owing to lack of any theatrics. The great Meryl Streep, her costar in the wonderful 'Doubt', had once pointed out of the gigantically gifted Davis at an award show 'My god, somebody give her a movie'. This act reinforces the talent. Acting as a superb foil is the more gallery friendly turn of Octavia Spencer's Minnie. Every member of the cast is effective. A special mention must be made of Sissy Spacek who is delightful in the limited screen time she inhabits. Equally deserving of praise is Bryce Dallas Howard who takes Hilly's mean girl bigot act to its zenith. As the main antagonist, she is fantastic. Emma Stone is good as the story's moral epicenter.

'The Help' is a high production glossy Hollywood take on a matter that is very serious and has affected generations, the rumblings of which can still be heard. In Skeetar's own story of the disappearance of her maid and often surrogate mother, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), we see a glimpse of the way it might have been even for nice, ordinary white women living in a society and time set in the comfortable old ways of the South. It did not just have to be a maniacal racist like Hilly, most well meaning people stroked its fire quietly. It was a way of life back then. Both the movie and its source material are good, but a slight discontentment stems from the fact that the tale skims the surface when it had the capability of going a lot under.

Released in 2011
Playing in Theatres

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