During the late fifties and sixties there was a Second Civil Rights Movement that intended to eradicate discriminatory racial laws that were in place in America. This is a time when racial segregation was common and icons of the era such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X became instrumental and influential figures during the era. Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett of the same name, The Help sets itself during this time period as two housemaids tell their side of the story to a journalist who decides to write an article (about the black housemaids) never written before in an attempt to gain experience and recognition to be able to work for a prestigious newspaper.
This journalist is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) who is young and ambitious with a promising career ahead of her. Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is a black maid who spends her whole time looking after white children of white families while cleaning, cooking and serving guests, while the housewives play bridge. Aibileen, after some pressure from Skeeter, decides to participate in the book (that Skeeter proposes to write) that tells of her life as a maid and in the southern state of Mississippi the writing of this book could have grave consequences.
The Help is a hugely entertaining, funny, feel good (almost too feel good when considering the central theme) film that is bursting with exceptional performances that help the rather long 145 minute running time breeze past. Emma Stone, at the ripe young age of 23, has proved that she can do comedy with Easy A, has now proved she can be more than a capable leading lady. She plays an ambitious journalist seeking a career. She is driven to write the book to work for a prestigious newspaper and the love she has for the old family housemaid Constantine (played by Cicely Tyson) who has left while Skeeter was still at university. Skeeter is suspicious that there is more to this story than what her mum is telling her. The relationship between Skeeter and Constantine can also be seen between Aibileen Clark and the daughter of Elizabeth Leefolt. The relationship is a moving one and becomes the heart and soul of the film. Aibileen creates a far stronger motherly relationship with the young child than the actual mother. So Emma Stone is terrific and Viola Davis delivers a superb, poignant performance of her own and Octavia Spencer (as the maid Minny) finishes off the collection fine performances with an entertaining and comic performance that generates most of the laughs. Emma Stone and Viola Davis battle it out for the best performance from an impressive cast list but it is Davis's heartfelt performance that wins out as she becomes the glue that holds the movie together by keeping the viewer engaged.
Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography beautifully reproduces the 60s (the bright visuals emulate the feel of the movie) as The Help works staggeringly well as a piece of entertainment that is undoubtedly a Hollywood style tear jerker. At times the emotional aspects are authentic as The Help is certainly a movie with a strong beating heart but some aspects are typical corny and cheesy Hollywood sentimentality. While there is a heart, The Help is not quite as moving and powerful as it should be. This is because it seems to be a film made for the audience, the film almost becomes too light hearted for its own good and it could even be argued that it trivialises the racism that black people were subjected to. The villain of the story is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is campaigning for separate bathrooms for The Help (the black housemaids) and it's hilarious when she gets her comeuppance. Jessica Chastain's (who seems to be in everything at the moment) Celia Foote is delightfully naive and Minny's eye rolling is a joy to watch. That said, however, there are some elements of humour that seem rather out place like Celia Foote vomiting at a party. It seems to Judd Apatow like.
Very similar to the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, The Help takes a rather liberal perspective of the Civil Rights Movement claiming that white people are the ones who inspired black people to rise up against their shocking, unjust treatment (which is a big fat lie). Skeeter is the one who inspires Aibileen and Minny to gain the courage and tell their stories, Tate Taylor and writer Kathryn Stockett completely dismiss the influence that the likes of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had during the era. The Help rather glosses over its central theme not really presenting a deep understanding of the era. Director Tate Taylor only just scratches the surface of what black people had to endure during a long, dark story of racial injustice which has plagued the country since the slaves were imported after the country's colonisation. The politics of the era are rather ignored and thus the film can be interpreted as rather patronising and condescending but The Help had nothing but good intentions despite displaying a limited knowledge of the era.
While some of the politics may be an issue, Tate Taylor has very little problems in crafting a film that remains consistently enjoyable throughout the lengthy running time as the film plays as a comedy-drama intended to please mainstream audiences without really taking any bold risks with the subject material. Yet I was drawn in, engaged by the characters, the sublime performances and the amusing dialogue, so while The Help is as sentimental, Hollywood feel good fluff, it is, thankfully, entertaining. The Help plays as a crowd pleaser rather than an informative, deadly serious piece on the Civil Rights Movement which many historians of the era may take issue with but it still remains a hard film to hate thanks to the delightful performances. So while The Help is wonderfully entertaining it is hindered by rather large flaws.