Moving tale of 60s racial segregation

When I bought tickets for The Help I thought I was going to see a whimsical chick flick – I was wrong.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 27th November 2011, 9:30 am

While the cast is largely female, this is a film for everyone. It is a film about courage and social change.

Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s best selling book, The Help is set in the racially segregated suburbs of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi.

In this beautifully shot film – vibrant, colourful and authentic of the era - we meet white society women and their black house maids – the Help.

Maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) has single-handedly brought up generations of white children while keeping their houses in order and catering for the families’ every whim.

But sorrow is written all over her face – not only has she suffered years of oppression, she is grieving for her son who died tragically.

Through Aibileen we meet a network of black maids – spirited women raising their own children too, living in shanty houses on the edge of town and the edge of society.

Their employers, in stark contrast, gallivant between high society dinners and charity balls without a thought for the Help running their households.

By the 1960s a civil rights movement had begun, but inequality and racism was still rife.

The Help – despite being regarded as part of the family – were made to eat using their own cutlery, use specially-built outside toilets and were not permitted to touch their employers.

This stigmatisation and mistreatment does not sit well with aspiring journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone).

She decides to write a book from the point of view of the Help – but she must first persuade them to open up.

It seems an impossible task considering it was illegal for anyone to promote civil rights and equality through literature.

Aibileen is the first to agree to be interviewed. She works for Skeeter’s close friend Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly).

Aibileen persuades another maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) to tell her story. Minny worked for Skeeter’s other friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) but was sacked for using the family toilet.

The two brave women lead the way and encourage more to come forward for Skeeter’s book.

Although The Help deals with a dark period in our history, the story is illuminated by the strength and humour of these women.

And while it is Skeeter’s book, they are the real writers – their stories reveal the cruelty of that time, and they pave the way for equality and change.

I felt a full spectrum of emotions. I laughed, cried, was angry and felt jubilant all in the space of two hours.

This is testament both to Stockett’s captivating story and the eclectic cast of well developed characters. I predict a raft of Oscar nominations.

Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s mother Mrs Walters is hilarious although only a peripheral character.

Emma Stone as Skeeter is fantastic. Her energetic performance as a young woman trying to forge a writing career brims with charm and the audience instantly knows she is an ally.

Brice Dallas Howard as evil Hilly, is intent on controlling those around her. The performance virtually seeps venom.

But for me Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer stand out as the strongest performances. They emanate warmth, heartache, hope, vulnerability and sisterhood.

Critics suggest The Help is too fluffy betrays some historical facts of the era. But I think it deals with the issues in a frank enough way, using humour to point out the shameful behaviour of those who considered themselves superior - and serving to remind us this was only 50 years ago.

by Hayley Gallimore