‘You are nice. You are smart. You are important.” This is such an important message to give to our children, and such an important reminder to our grown selves. That when things or people around you bring you down, you should always remember your own worth, you should have faith in what you can do. And while being reminded of your strengths is vital, vulnerability is also an important asset, but African American people were not given the time and space to be vulnerable, to share their grief and the inhumanity they had to endure. . Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer starrer The Help shows how they got that chance by putting literally everything they loved online in the 2011 film.
The Help is based on Kathryn Stockett’s book of the same name. It is set in 1963, Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. The story centers on two housekeepers – Viola Davis’ Aibileen and Octavia Spencer’s Minny, who, in partnership with Emma Stone’s Skeeter, help bring about some change in the then-racist town. The intent here is clear and honorable, to bring out the perspective of the oppressed. But before we talk about the good parts, it’s important to highlight The Help’s problematic points. First, of course, there’s the fact that the movie (I haven’t read the book) suffers from what’s commonly referred to as the “White Savior Complex.” Emma’s Skeeter is shown as the brave one who writes the book about the maids in her hometown, it is she who has this brilliant idea and therefore it is Skeeter, the young and privileged white woman, who is eventually called the heroine.
Her story and her compassion is what seemingly gets the primary arc. And while other characters are also round, complex people, she certainly seems to be the one with the most layers and the most flesh. That’s the projection and that’s a problem with a movie that claims to bring the other side to the screen. And despite the fact that Skeeter’s maid Constantine turns out to have such an effect on the main character, we’re just told that after she was 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 for all the justice she has? Some will say that people forgive things when death is near (Skeeter’s mother suffered from cancer), while others point out that you can only show so much in a 2.5-hour movie. And these people may be partially right, but even then the film barely comes to the surface when it comes to actually depicting the horrors that black people had to endure at the time.
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But there’s one crucial redeeming quality of The Help: the great cast of actors. While this may be one of those rare serious performances of Emma Stone with little comedic flavor in them, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were phenomenal. Viola, especially in the way she embodied the generous but firm Aibileen, was just amazing. Her scene with the little girl she has to care for is both sweet and moving, and the part where she tells about her son’s death is heartbreaking. Jessica Chastain’s Celia was hugely likeable, while Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly really made you hate her. Everyone else adapted their roles to the T, a rarity in huge ensemble pieces.
The Help won both critical acclaim and commercial acclaim upon its release. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won one; Octavia Spencer took home the gold statuette for her captivating performance. The film raised a whopping $217 million from its modest $25 million budget.