The Help Reviews: Southern Sass, Avoiding the Sociological Minefield, Davis and Spencer Shine

by Anne Thompson and Sophia Savage
August 8, 2011 6:35 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

The Help, based on Kathryn Sockett's 2009 novel, is finally landing some better reviews (below) that should help quell some of the controversy over the insider's look at black maids in 1960s Mississippi--told from a white woman's perspective. The reviews had been held back under an embargo, leaving Disney's NYT Sunday ad for the film packed with soft quotes from the likes of Rex Reed and Jeff Craig. Caryn James says the film improves on the book, despite having no artistic ambitions.

Director Tate Taylor had--in the words of THR's Kirk Honeycutt--a "minefield of sociological, historical and artistic booby traps" to avoid, and the director appears to have succeeded. Honeycutt singles out stars Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis for their exceptional performances. The two actresses talked to EW, defending their characters and the film (synopsis and trailer below).

Thompson on Hollywood
Spencer, who plays the character Minny Jackson in the film, recalls approaching the novel and the project expecting to hate it, thinking it would be like Gone with the Wind, but admits she fell in love with it as a story about human beings. She told EW: “I get that people are fatigued [with Hollywood]. And people who make decisions have to be held accountable because they’re not giving the same opportunities to African-Americans or other people of color. But, it’s not Kathryn’s fault. I don’t think that you need to be a black writer or a white writer or an Asian writer to tell a story; I just think you need to be a good storyteller.” Davis adds, “I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids." Her character is “a human being with the breadth and depth of emotions, and she is a contributing member of society. It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?’ I think it should be ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and she gives the f---ing performance of her life.'”

Kirk Honeycutt:

"[Taylor's] characters tend toward the facile and his white heroine is too idealized. The film also seems as if it were made in a void of cinematic ignorance, as if no motion picture of that or any other era ever tackled this topic. Consequently, there is almost nothing new here that filmmakers, novelists and historians haven’t picked over years ago…Where The Help succeeds magnificently though is in character portraits by actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer."

Peter Debruge:

"it serves as an enlightening and deeply affecting exercise in empathy for those who've never considered what life must have been like for African-Americans living with inequality a full century after the Emancipation Proclamation called an end to slavery. With its Southern sass and feel-good sensitivity -- and broad awareness as a New York Times bestseller -- "The Help" should clean up domestically, though it may not translate well overseas."

David Germain:

"This is popular big-screen entertainment at its best. Provocative without turning preachy, tender without tumbling into sentimentality, The Help is above all enormously enjoyable…Stone, Davis and Spencer forge something quite beautiful, a sense of sisterhood and equality that unfolds with ease and grace, never feeling forced or untrue to their era and circumstances."

Roger Moore:

"Despite its occasional cloying moments, The Help transcends its comfort-food-for-Oprah’s Book Club wrapping to get at something deeper, the gray in a story that seems so far removed as to be utterly black and white. And Davis and Spencer give faces and fully-fleshed out lives to women who must have been more than what they did for a living as The Help."

Cole Smithey:

"Emma Stone brings her A-game…You sense a good-humored gamesmanship between the actresses as they bring out the best in each other's performances. Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are a pleasure to watch. You almost feel like you're watching live theater with the way sparks fly between the two soulfully animated women,..For her villainous role Bryce Dallas Howard makes you hate her with a passion. The Help takes its audience on an emotional rollercoaster through lives lived in a culture that is aptly named Hell on Earth during one scene,..This is an appropriately moving film that never bows to sentimentality. What you feel is real. By all means, see this wonderful movie."

Here's the synopsis:

Based on one of the most talked about books in years and a #1 New York Times best-selling phenomenon,  “The Help” stars Emma Stone (Easy A) as Skeeter, Academy Award®–nominated Viola Davis (Doubt) as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny—three very different, extraordinary women in Mississippi during the 1960s,  who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project that breaks societal rules and puts them all at risk. From their improbable alliance a remarkable sisterhood emerges, instilling all of them with the courage to transcend the lines that define them, and the realization that sometimes those lines are made to be crossed—even if it means bringing everyone in town face-to-face with the changing times.

 Deeply moving, filled with poignancy, humor and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the ability to create change.

Based on one of the most talked about books in years and a #1 New York Times best-selling phenomenon, The Help is a provocative and inspiring look at what happens when a southern town’s unspoken code of rules and behavior is shattered by three courageous women who strike up an unlikely friendship.

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