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The Help—movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
August 12, 2011 4:30 AM
18 Comments
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Any time a book strikes a chord with a vast number of people, as Kathryn Stockett’s The Help did, there is a mixture of anticipation and trepidation about its transition to the screen. Overall, I think writer-director Tate Taylor has done a good job bringing the book and its characters to life, in concert with an exceptional cast. And, crucially, he has managed to recreate the look and feel of a Southern town in the 1960s, with its separate but unequal citizenry: the well-to-do white folks and their black servants.

If you lived through that time, it is incredible to contemplate how much has changed (and how much hasn’t) over the years, not only in race relations but in attitudes toward women. That’s part of the fascination of watching The Help, which captures so many telling details of—

—everyday life back then.

Some of the white characters (the social queen bee played by Bryce Dallas Howard, the plain-spoken outcast played Jessica Chastain, and Howard’s aged but outspoken mother, Sissy Spacek), while rooted in reality, flirt with caricature at times. I don’t question that there were, or are, people just like them—or that this is meant to be entertainment, and not a documentary—but when the housemaids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer seem so rich and palpably genuine, without a single false moment, it casts the broader characters in a different light. Of the white characters, only Emma Stone’s portrayal of Skeeter, a college graduate who chafes at the restrictions placed upon her as a young woman in polite society, rings completely true.

I also found it difficult to care as much about the problems facing Skeeter and the other white women when their black counterparts are dealing with much more serious issues, often at the risk of their lives.

But if The Help is less than perfect, it’s still a good movie that covers a lot of ground with an observant eye, and provides great parts for two exceptional actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. It isn’t too soon to be talking about Oscar where these women are concerned; their humanity shines through every scene.


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18 Comments

  • Leanne | December 15, 2011 11:39 PMReply

    I haven't seen the movie yet... but I did read the book and my opinion is that it was a very accurate portrayal of the South. I grew up in Alabama and sadly knew people exactly like Hilly. My Mom was always seemed busy with her Garden Club and other meetings and our maid Lomax was always there to "help out." I didn't appreciate at the time all she did for us but, I sure do now.

  • Troy | December 6, 2011 2:59 PMReply

    I enjoyed the film. Actually, I saw it twice for reinforcement. Many of my fellow black friends panned the movie before (and after they saw it). One of my friends became enraged in the theater, but what I said to him is what I'll say to each person who's commented here:

    If all you got from this film was a new reason to point fingers (whether you're white or black) you missed the point of the film. The movie is not about trying to remind white folks how bad their parents and grandparents treated blacks; it's about showing how an oppressed people overcame racial injustice, and how with each generation we have stripped away layers of hatred and discrimination.

    The people in this comment thread have made all sorts of incendiary statements about each other, which as baseless. This is where we are today.

  • seinfeldted | September 20, 2011 5:55 AMReply

    Please check out this GREAT video on fashion in "The Help" TODAYS LOOK - http://andrewmukamal.com/todayslook/todays-look-episode-37-fashion-in-film-the-help

  • Louanne | September 13, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    I lived in Mississippi all my life (50 years). Is there racisim...yes. More so between the older whites and yes older blacks. However, there's racisim in every state (even the North...you know we do get "the news" down here from time to time.) If the South were as dreaded as the rest of the US tries to make us, I believe we would be an all white south???!!!

  • Steve | September 4, 2011 4:38 AMReply

    Has it ever occurred to anyone in the literary or movie business that the blacks were not the only "servants" in America. What about the Chinese out west when the railroads were being built?

  • Shoshana | September 2, 2011 1:52 AMReply

    I read the book and saw the movie. The movie's lush scenery and portrayal of 1960's Jackson, Mississippi helped me to visualize the setting, and was beautiful. Of course, the white characters' problems, personal and otherwise, were very important to them, just as our problems, be they personal and perhaps petty, are important to us. It's a matter of scale. I would have made other choices for some of the casting, and I wouldn't have made the movie half-comedy, but I believe that millions of people who saw the movie, especially those who read the book as well, were deeply affected by it, and it certainly gave us much food for thought.

  • Colin Bowers | September 2, 2011 1:24 AMReply

    David and JayG,

    Were you in Jackson in the 1950's?? No, I didn't think so. "The whites, with one or two exceptions" WERE "brutal, uncaring racists". There were only the one or two exceptions, so I'd say the movie was pretty darn convincing. Like Maltin says, the movie shows how far we've come... and how far we have yet to come. But for goodness sake, let's not keeping making the same mistake of papering over history with false niceties and touchy-feely BS.

    Yes, the story was fictional. As such, we're not expected to believe that everything happened the way it was portrayed ...but as far as "it could have happened" that way, that's the effect the movie should have, and there's absolutely no reason why it couldn't have. I've studied a great deal about that period in American history, and I found the movie really well-written. (Except for the "woo-hoo" and some of the other comments by the editor of the newspaper....as funny as he was, his dialogue was straight out of 2011).

  • Carole | August 24, 2011 11:44 AMReply

    I read the book and saw the movie and am confused about the "Rachel" controversy/scene. Why would Constantine be fired on the spot when in the book it was for a completely different reason? I don't want to be a spoiler: read the book.

  • Karen | August 24, 2011 1:21 AMReply

    to David, I haven't seen the film yet, but for your information, the Tea Party has nothing to do with racism. The president, on the other hand, is very good at using racism to "portray" whatever happens to be his flavor of the month.

  • William Casey | August 23, 2011 5:23 AMReply

    Having grown up during this era in an Atlanta suburb, what resonated with me was this movie's portrayal of how "institutionalized" and "well, that's the way things are" racism was in day-to-day life. I grew up in a fairly non-racist household but one in which the status quo was just generally accepted. It was all just so "matter of fact... separate restrooms, separate schools, back-of-the-bus, job & housing discrimination, etc. Otherwise good people simply accepted injustice. There weren't too many "Hillys" around but there were legions who tolerated them and a whole lot worse. I believe that this movie was designed to attract the millions of us (and our children) who simply "stood by" back then and to motivate us to think. It succeeded. No liberal "white guilt" here, just some reflection.

  • Jeffrey | August 15, 2011 6:01 AMReply

    Let's see here. "Win Win", "The Beaver", "Super 8", "Terri" and now this. Mr. Maltin has been nothing if not perplexing in choosing to like a select handful of films this year. Everything else he trashes with contempt.

  • JayG | August 14, 2011 5:30 AMReply

    @David.
    Time to round up the next generation of nuanced filmmakers in the Tea Party; I'm certain they'll be able to portray sympathetic, profound portraits of Whites in America. Clearly, the history books, institutions, entertainment, political spin and others have failed to give due to Whites. My goodness, what has this nation come to?

  • David | August 13, 2011 7:26 AMReply

    I found this movie to be incredibly superficial. The black characters were all good people suppressed by white society. The whites (with only one or two exceptions) were brutal, uncaring racists.The fact that this is a novel, and not necessarily based on actual events, was completely ignored. As with many movies about this period, the media ignores any contrasting point of view. Any disagreement with Hollywood's viewpoint is merely dismissed as 'racist', with any further discussion unnecessary. Contrary views can be found in the dusty shelves of old bookstores. It's a shame our society has become so one-sided.

  • Norm | August 13, 2011 4:47 AMReply

    Another film about "whites"only as racists, how original. It is amazing how one-dimensional and unoriginal screenwriting has become. If only there were other races that were racist.
    Maybe if we were invaded by "white"only aliens...How did America ever survive...

  • rick | August 13, 2011 4:18 AMReply

    nice to hear a privileged white man's perspective on this incredibly mainstream movie

  • Mrs. V. | August 13, 2011 2:47 AMReply

    I'm glad you liked the movie, because I respect your comments on films. I am baffled how other critics gave it a rotten review. There was so much to be learned from this movie. Let us never forget, as some may rise in this world, that we are from the same slice of life--humanity. I know some small parts were corny, but this allowed some of the heavy hitting points to come through. I laughed, was involved, hated, loved and understood things that I personally don't feel in my heart. I laughed @ many scenes, but inside their was a heaviness in my soul. As the movie was drawing to a close, this heaviness opened up andI silently, yet visibly, I cried with emotions which were brought to the top by the greatness of this movie.

    thank you,
    marie

  • Geri | August 13, 2011 2:14 AMReply

    I disagree with your comment that you found it difficult to care as much about the white housewives problems. I thought the screen play was written so well, the actresses carried the lines, and played it to the hilt, and I thought there was tenderness to be felt for white & black. Throughout time no one that I know of can measure pain of hunger, pain of beatings, pain of miscarriage, pain of social meaness, and discrimination. Meaness can't be cured, but love helps and the movie abounded in love. Hurrah Stockett !

  • Brooklyn Eddie | August 12, 2011 9:48 AMReply

    I disagree in your remark about finding it difficult to care about the white housewifes problems such as Skeetzers love life , her trying tonwrite and publish the book , the miscarriages , Hilys villainous personalities .... I found it easier than you to care because of well written screen play and acting convincing me to care......I care about all of the character in some way or another....

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