Maids of honor
Strong performances outweigh sugar-coated portrayal of Civil Rights movement
There’s no doubt that newbie director Tate Taylor’s film The Help had the cards stacked against it from the beginning. Not only was it predestined to carry the pressure of an adaptation of a chick-lit best seller, but it relied on the ever-sensitive Civil Rights era to fuel the subject matter. I can’t judge the film first-hand using these criteria; I haven’t read Kathryn Stockett’s acclaimed book, nor was I alive anytime near the ’60s. Instead, the universal human drama shapes my opinion.
Set in early 1960s Jackson, Miss., The Help illustrates a place and time where Jim Crow still ruled the land, and racism wasn’t so much a term as it was the norm. Young, ambitious white college grad Skeeter (Emma Stone) decides to stir the pot by convincing the black maids of her town to compile a book of testimonials about their lives working for privileged white families. Soon, they’ve formed an unlikely friendship as they use the written word to “stick it to the man” like they never could before.
I think most of the people in my theater (including me, somewhat) left the room with teary eyes and genuinely sympathetic hearts, as the film succeeded in being both politically correct and ultimately “feel-good” entertainment. But given the tumultuous decade the film revolves around, I later questioned if I should feel so good. With the conveniently sentimental relationships depicted between Skeeter and her black friends, the film simplifies the Civil Rights movement into a sensationalized cinematic moment that’s just a little too sugar-coated.
Even the film’s racist villain, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), misses the mark, because her portrayal is so exaggerated that we can safely disassociate ourselves from her bigoted actions.
The Help’s credibility is saved by the genuine acting performances of the collective title characters. As stoic Aibileen and sassy Minny, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer deserve serious nods come Oscar season. Their convincing portrayals as maids have less to do with cooking and cleaning and more to do with presenting courageous voices during a time when it was safer to be silent.