Review: The Help

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The Pitch: Everyone loves Magical Negro.

The Review: Fancy a challenge getting decent parts in the movies? Then try being a middle-aged black woman. (I appreciate this is more of a fact of birth than a life choice, but bear with me.) Hollywood, and to a certain extent the acting profession in general, is still dominated by white males. If you’re only ticking one of those boxes it’s hard enough, but two strikes and you’ve almost no chance. If you then happen to be middle-aged as well and your name isn’t an anagram of Ghoopi Woldberg, then you might as well give up now. So when suitable parts come along, you’d be mad not to grab them with both hands if you fall into that particular demographic, so it’s hard to fault the likes of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for signing up to appear in The Help.

Viola Davis has already been making a name for herself, and it’s one that rolls off the tongue more easily than Ghoopi Woldberg. Credits including a Tony award and an Oscar nomination (for a role in Doubt where she was onscreen for less than ten minutes) almost make her the obvious choice for a role like this, but The Help is a film full of strong female roles. Emma Stone is front and centre on the poster as Skeeter, the determined young writer who senses injustice and a story that might be going hand and hand, which soon sees her coming into conflict with the most prominent of the town’s young ladies Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). Skeeter attempts to get Aibileen (Davis) to tell her story, but Aibileen fears the consequences and the reprisals and it may not be enough for her to stand alone.

What’s good about The Help is those performances, which are of a high standard across the board. Stone is resolute and persistent, battling against family expectations as well as those of society. Howard gets a slightly thankless role in some ways, but is believably haughty and eminently dislikeable. The real stand-outs, though, are Jessica Chastain as the woman sidelined by Hilly who starts out as comic relief but turns out to be something more substantial, Chastain excelling ; Octavia Spencer as Minny, Hilly’s maid who isn’t afraid to voice her opinions and who adds charm and heart; and Davis herself, with a past full of secrets that Stone is determined to get to the bottom of. Davis is the emotional centre of the film, often getting little dialogue at the side of scenes, but fierce and intense when the story requires it. There’s excellent support from the likes of Alison Janney and Sissy Spacek in motherly roles, but the men are almost as marginalised in the film as the black maids of the time were in real life.

Ah yes, real life. For all the shots of concerned people of every colour watching Martin Luther King on television, The Help isn’t keen on being upfront with its dealings of racism. There are episodes of Quantum Leap that do more to tackle head on issues of colour in that era, and that was a TV series starring two middle aged white guys. (Heck, there are episodes of Diff’rent Strokes that do more to tackle racism issues – this really is only one step up from The Cosby Show.) The films falls firmly into the trap of what Spike Lee and others called the Magical Negro; black characters acting in a purely advisory capacity to the white characters who actually take action. Despite serving the intent of the story, you can’t help but feeling it’s done more than a little disservice to hundreds of years of struggle for racial equality. (But hey, there’s good acting and some reasonable laughs, so that’s all right then…) So if you come to The Help expecting a genuine exploration of the hardships facing black maids in Sixties Mississippi, turn around and head home now; this is kitchen sink drama at its lightest, and the tenderest and toughest moments come sat around kitchen tables rather than shouting on the streets. The Help is good for what it is, and for the most part is a very entertaining night out as long as you align your expectations correctly at the door, but just don’t expect too much.

Why see it at the cinema: The main selling point of seeing this with an accompanying audience is the collective reaction. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (possibly), you’ll do it much more if you see it with a big group of people.

The Score: 7/10

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