Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Help (2011) [PG-13] ****

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the summer of 1962, this is the story of Eugenia Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a new graduate of the University of Mississippi. An aspiring writer, Skeeter is told by an editor at Harper and Row publishers in New York to get some experience first. So she takes a job at the Jackson Journal, where she's tasked with writing a weekly advice column on house cleaning. Since Skeeter knows nothing about cleaning a house she asks Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), one of her Junior League friends, if she would allow her black housekeeper Aibileen (Viola Davis) to help write the column.

As Skeeter interviews Aibileen for her column, her eyes are opened to the hypocrisy and injustice at the core of domestic race relations in the Deep South. Well-to-do white families employ black women as underpaid domestics to cook, clean house, do laundry and raise their children, yet the women are prohibited from using the household toilets or even sharing dishes and utensils. And while black domestics secretly resent their role as little more than lowly-paid slaves, there is nothing they can do about it. Mississippi state law makes it illegal to promote racial equality, and it is risky for white and black women even to be seen socializing in public.

As Aibileen shares the truth about her life, Skeeter begins to remember her own childhood and her own black nanny. She decides to write down Aibileen's stories, in the hope that they might one day be published, so that others' eyes might be opened and perhaps bring about change. But this is a dangerous activity, and even Aibileen's best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) refuses to participate in the project because she fears the wrath of her employer and Junior League president, the mean-spirited and vindictive Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard).

And then it becomes clearer how dangerous Skeeter's project is. On June 12th, 1963, civil rights activist Medgar Evers is assassinated in Jackson. Now, although they are both fearful and courageous, more women come forward to share their stories, and the rest is history.

This is a powerful drama; it takes an unflinching look at a critical time and place in American history and helps us understand why the civil rights movement was so vitally important for the southern black community, and why it was so bitterly resisted by southern whites. The film reminds us that Pres. John F. Kennedy embraced the civil rights movement and made it a cornerstone of his presidency. In retrospect we can understand how the civil rights movement was the catalyst for change in the Deep South, and how, within a generation the Deep South went from being conservative, states-rights Democrats (Dixiecrat) to being the right-wing bastion of Republican conservatism that it is today.

Featuring an incredible cast, The Help was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2012, including Best Picture, Best Leading Actress (Viola Davis) and two Best Supporting Actress awards (Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain), for which Octavia Spencer won an Oscar. Whether you lived through this turbulent time in American history, or simply remember it from films like Forrest Gump, this is a not-to-be-missed cinematic experience. 

[Blogger's rating: **** out of 5 stars.]

Labels: drama, history   
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 62/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=70, viewers=84)   

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