The Help [Blu-Ray]
Director : Tate Taylor
Screenplay : Tate Taylor (based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Emma Stone (Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan), Viola Davis (Aibileen Clark), Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly Holbrook), Octavia Spencer (Minny Jackson), Jessica Chastain (Celia Foote), Ahna O’Reilly (Elizabeth Leefolt), Allison Janney (Charlotte Phelan), Anna Camp (Jolene French), Eleanor Henry (Mae Mobley), Emma Henry (Mae Mobley), Chris Lowell (Stuart Whitworth), Cicely Tyson (Constantine Jefferson), Mike Vogel (Johnny Foote), Sissy Spacek (Missus Walters), Brian Kerwin (Robert Phelan), Wes Chatham (Carlton Phelan)
Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early, pre-Civil Rights years of the 1960s, The Help largely succeeds in finding good ol’ fashioned entertainment value heavily laced with social uplift in its tale of a young white woman who wants to blow the lid off generations-old institutionalized racism by writing a book about the firsthand experiences of black maids working for white families. The idea that the worst strains of indoctrinated American racism resided primarily in Southern culture is nothing new, and in that regard the The Help is old hat. However, what it does of particular value is dramatize with great specificity the nature of how that racism openly operated and was concomitantly justified in privileged white society via rigid social structures that were treated as inevitable--the way things are. We see how, in effect, slavery didn’t end so much as it simply shifted parameters.
Like the debut novel by Kathryn Stockett on which it is based, The Help splits its narrative attention fairly evenly among three characters: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a white girl from a wealthy family who has just returned to Jackson after finishing college and whose eyes are finally opened to the plight of the African-American women around her, and two black maids: Aibileen Clark (Viola Clark), who is resilient and devout in her determination to bear the burden of her race and gender in a place that has little respect for either, and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), another black maid whose tendency to talk back to her condescending employers frequently results in her being out of work. The film’s real heart and soul is Aibileen, whose voice we frequently hear in voice-over narration. Having recently lost her own 24-year-old son in an industrial accident, Aibileen’s job of raising the children of wealthy white women who have neither the time nor the desire to sully themselves by changing diapers and nursing is even more bitterly ironic.
Skeeter, who is the only one of her high school friends who went to college (the others married young and rich and started having babies), quickly tires of the phony charades of the Junior League and other white social institutions that blithely support the oppression of African Americans in their community while cheerfully enjoying their social privileges and soothing any twinges of hypocrisy by raising money for starving African babies. When Skeeter approaches Aibileen about being interviewed for her book project, she is understandably wary. After all, Jackson is a small enough place that she could easily suffer serious repercussions if it were discovered that she was talking about her white employers. Skeeter herself is not immune to persecution despite her white skin and connected family, especially since her book project is essentially illegal under Mississippi law because it technically contradicts the Jim Crow fiction of “separate but equal.” The potential danger she faces is never as severe as what might come down on Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids who agree to talk to her, but it nevertheless forges a bond between them that transcends their skin color via shared humanity. While Skeeter obviously does not suffer from racial prejudice, she is constantly held back by the culture’s equally indoctrinated misogyny, which results in her academic accomplishments being ignored and her lack of romantic involvement being treated with casual contempt or outright suspicion (her mother, played by Allison Janney, has an amusingly awkward conversation with her in which she asks Skeeter if she is still single because she has been having “unnatural” thoughts).
In this regard, The Help is an emotionally stirring portrait of the multiply intersecting forms of persecution that keep people down, and it is clearly calculated to stir liberal anger and white guilt, but never to the point of being unenjoyable. There is plenty of terrible white behavior on display, especially by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the president of the Junior League and the de facto queen bee of upper-crust society whose chipper façade gives her racist behavior a thin veneer of social justification that only enhances its repulsiveness (she explains with pseudo-scientific authority that black maids should never use the bathrooms in white houses because they have “different diseases”). Hilly becomes the epitome of all that is loathsome in Southern white culture, and therefore acts as a convenient receptacle for audience disgust while most of the other white characters, including Skeeter’s mother, are given a chance to become “enlightened” and therefore forgiven their previous actions. We can also see this principle in operation via the character of Celia Foote (Jessica Castain), a white outcast who had the temerity to get pregnant out of wedlock and marry her boyfriend, who happened to be Hilly’s ex. As a result, she is just as much persona non grata at Jackson’s premiere social functions as any of the black maids, thus suggesting that social persecution is not always just a racial issue. No wonder, then, that Celia is the only person left in town who will hire Minny, who has more than a few lessons to impart, not only on how to cook (Minny’s specialty), but how to deal with being treated as if you are invisible.
The Help was adapted and directed by Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett’s to whom she sold the rights before the book was even published. This is only Taylor’s second feature film, following 2009’s Dirty Pretty Things, and at times it shows. Even at two and a half hours in length, Taylor has to give short shrift to a number of subplots that probably should have been excised completely. This is particularly true of Skeeter’s up-and-down romantic relationship with Stuart Whitworth (Chris Lowell), who changes so dramatically from scene to scene that you would be justified in thinking that he suffers from bipolar disorder. However, Taylor displays a sure hand in directing the actors, at least those that have three-dimensional characters to portray. Stone continues to prove that she is one of the most charming and intelligent young actresses currently working, and she makes Skeeter a complex, intriguing character who transcends her narrative role as enlightened white conscience. Viola Davis, who was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago for her role as a troubled mother in Doubt (2008), brings appropriate gravitas and soul to Aibileen, while Octavia Spencer, who Stockett had in mind when she wrote the novel and who contributed to the audio version of the book, has a wonderfully disarming sense of humor and spirit that constantly verges on, but never quite slips into, caricature. The same cannot be said for Bryce Dallas Howard, whose Hilly is so one-dimensionally awful that her villainy becomes almost boring. She does have a nice moment near the very end where she suggests ever so subtly that Hilly hates herself as much as everyone else around her, but it would have been nice to have seen more of that throughout the film.
In fact, The Help would have benefitted overall from a little more subtlety and nuance, although it is not surprising that Taylor works primarily in broad, crowd-pleasing strokes, especially when dealing with such sensitive subject matter. Even today, some four decades after the events in the film are set, race is a subject of great pain, and while The Help is not--nor is it intended to be--a painful movie, it is one that should inspire some thought and reflection.
|The Help Blu-Ray + DVD|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Touchstone Home Entertainment / DreamWorks SKG|
|Release Date||December 6, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of The Help is about as good as we could expect it to be. The image actually looks brighter and shinier than I remember it looking in the theaters, but otherwise I can’t complain about a thing. The image is crisp, sharp, and beautifully detailed, which helps emphasize the importance of the Southern location work, rather than trying to recreate the South of the Civil Rights era on a Hollywood back lot. Colors are strong and vibrant, and I didn’t notice any distracting instances of edge enhancement or other unnecessary digital manipulations. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack does its job well, keeping dialogue clear and centered while the surround channels expand the musical score and create an effective sense of ambiance.|
|The Help Blu-Ray includes two featurettes. “Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film” is a 23-minute look at the film’s origins and development, with particular attention paid to the decades-long friendship among director Tate Taylor, author Kathryn Stockett, and actress Octavia Spencer, as well as the location shooting in Mississippi (we get to meet several of the home owners whose houses were used in the film). “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi” is an 11-minute featurette in which Taylor and Spencer return to Greenwood, Mississippi, where the film was shot, and interview African-American women of different generations living there. Also on the disc are five deleted scenes (running a little less than 10 minutes total), each of which is introduced by Taylor, and Mary J. Blige’s “The Living Proof” music video.|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Touchstone Home Entertainment / DreamWorks SKG