THE HELP (12A): On General Release Wednesday 26th October
Although it has the feel of a “true” story, told with trademark American schmaltz, this film was adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller of the same name. A story of racial injustice, friendship, heartbreak, jealousy and female empowerment; the film prods at our quivering tear ducts from start to finish. But at nearly three hours long, there are moments when director Tate Taylor gets too wrapped up in the idea of creating a powerful film dealing with a vast spectrum of human suffering, to effective deal sincerely with all of the strands.
Set in the 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, at a time when black people were treated as near slaves and a danger to public health, the film tells the story of an aspiring young journalist keen to make an impact on the injustice she sees around her. Enter Skeeter (Emma Stone), a wide-eyed young gal with big dreams but only a small town to achieve them in. After taking a job writing on a cleaning column for the local paper, she seeks help and advice from her friend’s maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis).
Spending time with the world-weary woman, Skeeter begins to think it would be a good idea to collect the stories of all the maids in town to put into a book (and hopefully achieve her goal of writing something grossly important). As the stories unravel and more maids come forward after the brutal murder of civil rights activist, Medgar Evans, Skeeter and her brave volunteers become key players in their own tale.
Born in Mississippi in 1969, Stockett, a white woman, has suggested that she was inspired by Demetrie McLorn, a black woman who worked as a maid for her family who died when she was 16. Serving as a real-life example of Skeeter’s surrogate mother-maid, it is clear to see where the affection with which Stockett piles on comes from.
The film is impressively performed with a particularly shining effort from Viola Davis, who could almost have single-handedly held the audience for the entire length of the film. Her dear friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer) is equally as captivating as the sass-mouthin’ mother of several who has to take the effervescent Celia Foot (Jessica Chastain) in hand as an outcast from the town and disastrous young housewife in desperate need of help. Not in her usual gag-a-minute, gross-out film comfort scene, Emma Stone is impressive as the curly-haired wannabe hack.
But the film ultimately fails in its ambitiousness to show too much suffering. Simultaneously attempting to portray the day-to-day miseries of black, practically-slave, labour alongside the woes of the town’s white residents – it errs on the side of placing equal value on each side of the colour line. Everyone is the same, we get that, but this film with its cancer-suffering, infertile, jealous, helpless and misunderstood white characters allows you to get away, quite convincingly, with feeling sorry for intensely racist white bigots.
It’s a mind-boggling scenario which has allowed the Black Panther herself, Miss Skeeter, to develop such a strong sense of right and wrong despite having grown up in a town like Jackson. “To Kill a Mocking Bird” may be artfully placed on the shelf above her typewriter but with no solid inspirational figure offered up as her motivation to put her life on the line for this cause, it is hard to believe in her unfailingly. And no, her mother’s explanation towards the end of the film that “courage has skipped a generation” does not cut it.
Having jabbed a finger at the flaws of Tate Taylor’s film, it is unfair not to admit that it was touching in a way that few films are. The conviction with which each actor approached their role and the idea behind the film was clear and the film certainly packs a strong emotional punch but not one strong enough to overlook its deficiencies.