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Movie Review: The Help

Posted on: September 2, 2011

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What does it mean when a bunch of older white Americans buy tickets to see a movie about racism in the deep south during the sixties?  What does it mean when this same audience remains seated while the closing credits roll, talking quietly among themselves?  Are they reflecting on their own experiences during that period?  about the acting or the scenery?  about the hard rain pounding on the theater’s roof during the third act?  Why don’t they get up and leave just as they do after any other movie?

Only once before have I experienced such a thing.  It was after the first showing of Saving Private Ryan in 1998.  Almost every seat was occupied by a World War II veteran and his spouse.  When the closing credits began to roll in silence, all I could hear was…sobbing.  Not a soul moved for at least five minutes.

The Help has the same effect.  You don’t want to move for fear that a precious feeling will pass.  You want to continue to savor the telling of a story.  You want to reflect upon the meaning of it all.  You wonder if things have changed all that much.

It’s easy to imagine Jackson, Mississippi as the setting for a story about racism in the early sixties, though I personally experienced a sameness in northern cities during that era.  The place isn’t the story; the mores of the times is the story.

The Help | Change begins with a whisper

Black women served white families as maids and, more importantly, as nannies.  They were the strong, nurturing presence for their “babies” while their mothers were busy being popular.  Every day, one nanny told her young charge: “You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important.”

‘Skeeter’ Phalen (Emma Stone) was one of the children who’d been raised by “the help.”  Her nanny (Cicely Tyson) impressed upon her the knowledge that she’d grow up to accomplish something of significance, one day.   Now, as a young adult, she firmly believed in herself and in what she wanted to do: write.  Her first project of significance — a book written from the point of view of the community of nannies.

The beauty of Stone’s portrayal is that she never succumbs to a banner-waving stereotype.  Her character is empathetic, yes; loving of her subjects, yes.  But she distances her storytelling from herself as the story.  This allowed the subjects to be shown as deeply as is possible, and for this we owe director Tate Taylor a debt of gratitude.  We are given the opportunity to see a reality from a perspective other than our own.  We are given the gift of character portrayals rich in texture and emotion.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer play their nanny roles in an understated way; sometimes subservient, but not often.  Away from their white families, their true personalities are allowed to emerge and we discover that they are little different from any one of us.  Given the same situations, our responses would be the same as theirs.  And this is the magic of The Help.

The script has the ring of truth throughout; there is never a false moment; there is no pandering or slant or ‘messaging.’  It is a story about the courage of the powerless against the powerful.  It is a story about a time in American history that may (or may not) have passed.  It lets you decide.  It is a story told with gripping tension relieved by moments of welcome belly-laughs.

I give The Help 3½ slices of chocolate pie (out of four).

Certain movies should be viewed for their historical value: Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, Good Night and Good Luck and All the President’s Men to name but a recent few.  I would place The Help on that august shelf.  To see it is to add to the understanding of events in our lifetimes; to inform what is abstract history to many more.

As she walks away from her white family’s house at the end of the movie, Viola Davis’ character Aibileen Clark narrates: “Nobody ever asked me before what it’s like to be me.”  After watching The Help, we are privileged to know.

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