By Cathy Anderson
Enigmatic, emotional and funny, The Help is one of the best films of the year.
Highly deserving of its Oscar buzz, the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller offers stellar performances, political savvy and a heart-wrenching narrative.
Set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, in the midst of the upsurge in the civil rights movement, The Help is the story of graduate journalist Eugenia ‘‘Skeeter’’ Phelan (Emma Stone), part of the town’s well-to-do white lady set but one of the few with a social conscience.
Although she’s landed a job writing a housekeeping column for The Jackson Journal , she aims higher, and embarks on a seemingly impossible task – interviewing African American women about their lives as household help.
It’s a dangerous business. Such a project risks Skeeter’s own social standing in the rich-bitch brigade, led by the snippy Hilly Holbrook (played with such unlikable aplomb by Bryce Dallas Howard), but also the livelihoods and safety of any woman who dares expose the secrets of her servitude.
The first to crack is Aibileen (Viola Davis) who, like many of her peers, has spent her life as a maid and nanny raising white babies with love and tenderness, only to watch them become inherent racists like their parents.
Stoic, heartbroken, but ultimately courageous, Aibileen has lost purpose after the death of her only son and finds hope through Skeeter. In turn, Jackson’s maids find release through her bravery.
While The Help stops short of the gut-wrenching emotional intensity of seminal race film The Color Purple, it follows the same path, presenting a perspective that is sometimes hard to watch. The question is undoubtedly how can black people be referred to with such open and reprehensible disrespect but also how women can treat their own sex so badly.
Stone may have top billing, and the sassy next-best-thing star of teen comedy Easy A and apocalypse flick Zombieland is excellent. But the star of the show is Davis. She makes Aibileen’s journey from an obedient, invisible second-class citizen to reluctant but brave heroine an uplifting, if teary, experience.
Aibileen’s best friend, the delightfully whip-smart Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), provides most of the comedic energy of the film, and she’s a cheeky respite from the sombre issues of prejudice, violence and ill-treatment. Her feelgood contribution is not limited to scheming scenes with Aibileen and Skeeter, but the race-defying relationship she has with new boss Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the trashy blonde bombshell spurned by Hilly’s horde.
Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek, as the mothers of Skeeter and Hilly respectively, add warmth, humour and depth, rounding out an impeccably chosen cast ably directed by debutant Tate Taylor.
This article originally appeared in mX newspaper