Based on the best selling book of the same name by first time novelist Kathryn Stockett, we are transported back to a lightly fictionalized Mississippi circa 1960.
This is a time when folks were either white or coloured, simplistically whites had the money, privilege and law on their side and used that power however they goddam pleased. Of course, rich white folk would need “Help” running their large houses and bringing up their children whilst they pursued more worthwhile pursuits, like Bridge and gossip.
The story is fictional and focuses on a group of rich white ladies and their “negro” maids, Abileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer – Oscar winning for this role). To counterbalance the institutionalized and accepted racism clearly on view, we have Skeeter (Emma Stone), who whilst not totally convinced, is at least asking the question why everything is like it is. Skeeter acts as the modern audiences window into this strange and rapidly changing world.
Skeeter is an aspiring reporter gently teasing out a story from the reluctant maids, in the hope of producing a book detailing what the “Help” really thinks of their life, work and those employing them. There are huge and life threatening risks for those involved in helping to write the book. Starvation, trumped up theft charges and worse, are all real possibilities in a world that Skeeter can never truly enter.
Some employers look after their staff with respect and dignity over many years, treating them as family. However, seemingly the younger generation, do not. For many, the line between slave and employee is a fine one indeed, lives blighted or destroyed at the passing whim of a rich woman’s choosing.
Notable characters are Celia, ostracized and desperate to be accepted by the “in crowd” yet doomed to fail, Hilly (Howard), a vicious and small minded woman and the easily influenced Leefolt (O’Reilly). Skeeters mum (Janney) is a good woman but is tied to the past, despite her own humanity and intelligence desperately chafing at the conventions of the time.
This is a film that has been embraced by book clubs, schools and history teachers and it is easy to see why. The acting is uniformly good, especially Davis and Spencer who bring a quiet dignity and respect their roles, acting as representatives for all those that had no voice at the time. Davis whose brief turn in “Doubt” with Meryl Streep, again proves her acting ability.
Perhaps the most shocking realization is that this is not ancient history, such events are only fifty years ago. Separate bathrooms for “them coloreds”, who may bring bring different diseases to the house and yet can be trusted with the families supposed prize possessions, their children.
The film is uplifting, funny and poignant in parts although not as hard hitting as the book and does on occasion appear somewhat “airbrushed” to avoid offending current sensibilities. Whilst not a Hollywood ending, loose ends are tied better on the screen and justice seen to be done, the book exists in a more realistic shade of grey.
There is much to enjoy and much to be ashamed of but overall this is film that deserves to be seen and discussed. We are never too far away from such events to take the freedoms, acceptance and tolerance that most of us enjoy, for granted.
A film that any audience can enjoy, serious, well intentioned albeit somewhat sanitised version of the book which in itself perhaps only scratches the surface of what life might have been like for those in service.
Fine acting and a great story make this a recommended watch