|First of all, let me say that I read 'The Help' last year as a book club selection, and I enjoyed it. Both the black and white characters were thoroughly fleshed out, and were non-stereotypical, as is rarelly the case in a book that contains an interracial cast. That being said, my knowledge of the novel will have no bearing on my review of the movie.
The Help, chronicles the humble efforts of a young well-to-do yet awkward white woman as she tries to compile the stories of various black maids as an attempt to make their voices heard in the burgeoning Civil Rights Era of the early sixties in Jackson, Mississppi. The main focus at the beginning of the movie is on "Skeeter" the young white author, and Abileen, a middle aged maid who works for Skeeter's friend Elizabeth. As the scenario unfolds, the characters of Minny, Constantine, and Yule May Davis along with their perspective employers are introduced as they react to the Civil Rights Movement with either fear, hope, or anger.
I'm going to break down the review by setting, character costume, script, and overall acting ability of the cast.
The setting was as authentic as the director could get. It was shot in Greenwood, Mississippi as well as some principal shots in Jackson. The buildings and locations ranging from old heirloom mansions, to grocery stores and soda fountain shops stayed true to the era of the early sixties. The movie definitely gets a 5/5 there.
The character costumes were as equally well done. The formal dresses of the white employers were fabulous well-designed A-line dresses well in keeping with the conservative dress of the day. But the costume designers really shine when the actors wore the more laid back every day wear that seemed comfortable. I was really impressed by Skeeter's mother's little turban that she used to cover up her thinning hair. And the maid uniforms that were clean, and yet frighteningly well-worn. Yet another 5/5 is in order for this layer of the film.
The script on the other hand, I felt could use some work. I think the script relied too much on the body language of the actors to get some points across. Even though there was a lot of conflict going on behind the scenes, I didn't feel like the danger to the maids, and to Skeeter, was "in your face" enough. Sure there's television footage of Medgar Evers being shot, but nothing is really seen. No one is physically abused, unless you count Yule May who is clubbed over the head while in police custody, and Abileen by her husband. Unfortunatley, all this action takes place off-camera. I'm not saying there should be a level of violence such as that seen in Malcolm X, but the danger didn't seem to be very real to me. Just a lot of cruel rich white people playing tricks. There seemed to be a sort of disconnect between the Civil Rights movement, which was supposed to be galvanizing the area at that time, and the action that is actually going on the movie. The ending scene, which takes place between Abileen and Hilly, I felt wasn't powerful enough to warrant the emotionally shocking response that Hilly gives. I think with a little adjustment, here and there, it could have been a little more apropriate to the characters. For these reasons, I give the script a 3/5.
The acting is slightly marred a little by the script, but was well-done overall. Viola Davis, who played Abileen, and Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, really shined here. Viola Davis had the hard task of appearing weary and strong at the same time, which I think she pulled off very well. Jessica Chastain was sweet and naive while not coming across as stupid and slutty, which would have been a hard task for many other actresses given her role. Emma Stone also did well in her role as the head-strong, well-meaning Skeeter. Cicely Tyson as Skeeter's childhood maid was a pleasant surprise as the shaky-handed elderly woman getting along in years. Allison Janney as Skeeter's mother, was a little uneven in her performance in the scene with Constantine(not surprising given the mixed emotions taking place in her character), but was overall decent. Octavia Spencer as Minnie, was a bit of a disappointment to me. She didn't seem to embody the rough-woundedness of a battered woman. I couldn't really get into her character at all. Hily Holbrook played a mean bitch very well, but I kind of expected her to come across as more evil. A 4/5 is the cast's reward.
While I can't call this movie a classic that warrants preservation in the American Film Institute, or even realistic protrayal of the Civil Rights Movement in the lives of every day black and white folk of the south, it's a decent movie for what it is: nostalgic fantasy. If this movie could be graded, it would get an 80, or a low-level B. I liked it. And I'm pretty sure you will too.