Entries in Tate Taylor (1)

Sunday
Nov272011

'The Help' Successfully Honors Southern Black Maids of the 1960s

 

DVD REVIEW: The Help (DreamWorks); Two-disc, Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack offers poignant bang for your buck.

 

By Robbie Woliver

The Help is like a Southern meal—part greasy, part grit, full of earthiness and attitude. While there’s some fluff in the fritters, it’s a wholly satisfying meal, quite filling and full of varied flavors. The key, however, to what makes a Southern meal and The Help successful is content; while the soul food spread is beautiful, it’s what lies on those dishes that makes it so perfect—the crispy, tender chicken, for example. With The Help, that crispy tenderness is the story itself, based on the bestselling book by Kathryn Stockett.

The Help revolves around Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), an aspiring journalist who lives in Jim Crow Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. Fiercely independent, she’s unlike her privileged Junior League childhood peers who aspire to nothing more than being mothers to children they barely raise. They all were raised by black maids, and (except for unmarried "oddball" Skeeter), they now have maids of their own, and their “help” are now raising their children. It’s a modern version of the Plantation mammy. These hard-working black women can raise these girl-women’s children, but the help can’t even use the family’s bathroom.

As her circle of bitchy, superficial white girls belittle the help in front of them as if they weren’t even in the room, Skeeter begins to become more and more uneasy with the system. She tires of their silly tea parties, which take on more ominous tones as these clueless girls start affiliating with the White Citizen’s Council, a white supremacist organization borne in the very town in which the movie was filmed. Skeeter moves her allegiances to the black maids, hoping to write a book from the maids’ point of view. She is deeply inspired by her own childhood maid, as was author Stockett. Skeeter quickly learns that these maids' seemingly hopeless lives also carry a lot of hope and inspiration. We all discover a resilience and spirit not found in the dead hearts of these women’s oppressive white counterparts. 

While these young, vapid Southern belles are sweet and genteel on the outside, they are heartless and cruel to their help, all vilenss spewed through a broad Mississippi smile. Their perspective is skewed: They treat their help like crap, but they hold a large benefit for the children of Africa. These powerless maids follow these women from get-together to get-together as if they are chattel. However, when these maids get together, their repressed anger and frustration come out in fiery camaraderie—don’t forget, they know all these families’ secrets.

With The Help, writer/director Tate Taylor (Winter’s Bone) has followed a successful tradition of over-sized, scene–chewing movies about Southern women. The Help is not that unlike Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias. But what sets it apart is that its original, captivating theme is actually important. Schools should be showing this movie in history class. While it is fictionalized, it's still a harsh reality.

The story is about revelation: Skeeter’s and Aibileen, the maid who helps her realize her concept of writing a book from the maid’s point-of-view. The intrepid Viola Davis’ Aibileen also has a few revelatory moments as she comes to the tough decision of helping Skeeter write the book—a dangerous prospect for both, and for any other maids who cooperate with them. There are stiff laws in Mississippi, Skeeter, discovers, against such a collaboration. But against the backdrop of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the women bond, and complete their fascinating project. And, whoa boy, the results.

Revenge’s Emily Thorne can learn a few lessons from these women, especially Minny Johnson, played wonderfully by the multi-faceted Octavia Spencer, who balances her character’s gravitas and comedy well. Of course, expect a ton of Oscar nominations for The Help, especially the talented cast, and especially Davis and Spencer. (My vote is for the toddlers who played adorable Mae Mobley).  Stone, who will unfortunately most likely be overlooked by Oscar, anchors the movie with her solid and believable performance. Most of The Help’s white characters are too caricature-ish with over-the-top acting (ugh, I hate quivering chins), but Bryce Dallas Howard as the vain terror, Hilly Holbrook, is a wonderful standout, and you’ll have to love Jessica Chastain’s heart-tugging Marilyn Monroe-like performance as social outcast Celia Foote.

Viola Davis (right) and Emma Stone (left) anchor a moving take on familiar genre fare. (Credit: Dale Robinette/Disney/AP)


There are some killer veteran actresses on board like Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen, and Sissy Spacek, whose characters are straight out of central casting. Because the story that’s being told is a serious one, it’s a shame that all these women veer off into cartoon land.

Singling out these real-life, hard-working, proud women and their lives is an interesting twist on documenting those troubled times. The world around these women was about to explode, and the reality was more volatile than the story we see. But that’s fine, because it all comes down to that “story,” and that story is a fascinating, well-told one.

 

FEATURES: High-definition widescreen Blu-Ray adds a nice lushness to the opulence of the white world and a depth to the home environment of the maids.  As for extra features, there are deleted scenes, a Mary J. Blige video for the theme song, “Living Proof,” and the living proof itself—two non-fiction featurettes, the slightly disappointing “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi,” which lets emotions flow. But the stories are not in-depth enough, and there certainly aren’t enough of them. It was nice for Tate Taylor to honor his own childhood maid and “other mother,” Carol Lee. “Making of The Help” was actually the most powerful feature on the two-disc set, and that includes the film itself. The childhood friendship between Taylor and Stockett, and their Cinderella success story, is a wonderful backdrop to their real-life experiences being raised by maids, an authenticity lost somewhat in the showbizzy aspect of the film. 

 

IN OTHER WORDS: Sure, The Help could have used a little help of its own to tone down the big, broad edges, but it was as satisfying as a movie can be, especially after seeing some of the bonus features.

 

THE HELP RATING: 8/10

“MAKING OF THE HELP” FEATURETTE RATING: 8.9/10

OSCARS RATING: Were guessing at least 10 nominations/2012

BITCH RATING: Smiles That Can Kill/Whoa, Those Southern Women

I WANT A MAID RATING: 9/10

 

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