Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name, The Help takes place in 1962 two years before the civil rights act was eventually signed; and in the same year as a deadly race riot following the admission of James Meredith, the first black American to the University of Mississippi .

The film as in the book is set in Jackson, Mississippi, a hotbed of racial discrimination and an important battleground for American civil rights movement. Although fictional, the movie uses these very real events as a canvas to tell the story of a group of African American maids and their experience of working for white families.

In an attempt to kick start her fledging writing career the open minded Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, comfortably played by Emma Stone, attempts to convince the maids to reveal their unheard stories and honest accounts of being ‘The Help’ for a book she’s planning to write.

But for any black domestic caught talking to a white person in public in 1960’s Mississippi was a dangerous and illegal activity. In spite of her fears resolute house maid Aibileen Clark, played with a quiet conviction by Viola Davis, decides to reveal her stories of mistreatment and inequality to Skeeter during their clandestine meetings.

The film does well to highlight the inhuman and demeaning conditions many of these working women had to endure. The insistence that the ‘staff’ should use their own bathroom although many were the sole carer for their employers’ children also highlighted the irrational nature of prejudice.

Aibileen’s friend and fellow domestic Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) adds an injection of humour to this almost all female-picture. Although Spencer’s performance was superb as the sassy Minny, the comedy frequently got in the way and felt a little out of place, like watching Mississippi Burning as a chic-flick.

Unfortunately writer and director Tate Taylor has undermined an earnest and powerful story by setting it in a caricatured and rosy landscape. The oppressed housemaids often experience a Disney-like representation of racism and bigotry, including pantomime baddie Hilly Holbrook, a scheming and cruel white socialite played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Disney-fication continues to the final fluffy scenes when all our heroines’ lives are predictably changed for the better after the publication of Skeeters book.

Even the Cruella Deville-esk Holbrook gets her just deserts, making the world a better place in the process but disappointingly not a better film.

Now playing at FACT

Vinny Lawrenson-Woods

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