THE HELP directed by Tate Taylor (USA, 2011)

On January 31st, 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to officially abolish slavery in America. The amendment read : “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Somebody forget to tell this news to the white women of Jackson, Mississippi

This movie presents these women as something like the Stepford Wives with everything in its right place. They can look so immaculately unflustered because they have a ‘help’ to do all the menial tasks.Despite the ‘respectable’ setting, these black maids are effectively treated as slaves as they have to endure low wages, no job security and often demeaning work.

The film is good at showing how prejudice becomes such a way of life to the point that these American women see no contradiction between the patronising, and sometimes cruel, way they treat their maids and running charity events to collect  money for African children.

The most hideous of the self-satisfied Jackson ladies is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who like Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, hides her cruelty beneath a veneer of  kitschy perfection.  She promotes a ‘Home Help Sanitation Initiative’ designed to ensure that separate toilet facilities are provided for the blacks to prevent  the spread of diseases.

Minny

Octavia Spencer as Minny with ‘that’ cake.

A free-spirited young woman , Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) sees the racially motivated slurs for what they are and decides to talk to these maids and collect her interviews in a book to give them a voice.

Her social conscience derives from a special relationship with her own ‘maid’ /mother substitute Constantine who, despite years of loyal service ,was harshly sacked while Skeeter was away at University.

Director, Tate Taylor is careful to  maintain a lightweight ‘family friendly’ glow to the film so, for instance, doesn’t  show any scenes of domestic violence even though we learn that Minny’s husband beats her.  The only visible sign of this is a small cut over one eye.

Showing all the black characters as intelligent , dignified and peace-loving may be a justifiable act of positive discrimination but glossing over the harsh details of their lives also means that there is a lack of social realism. The murder of black-rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963 and the civil rights movement sweeping America is the context but never a dominant part of the story.

This is a well-intentioned but bland ensemble piece with Octavia Spencer as Minny particularly good at showing the humour and spirit that keeps the black women sane. (She gets her revenge on Hilly by baking one of her special cakes with a ‘secret’ ingredient!).

I haven’t read  the book by Kathryn Stockett on which it is based and ,now that I’ve seen the movie, I probably never will. I imagine, however, that it is better as it probably shows a more rounded picture of the characters.

There’s never any doubt that this is a film about black lives as seen through the filter of white experience but at least it doesn’t pretend to be anything more. View with tea and cakes for best results.

Advertisements