Nominated for four Academy Awards at this year’s Oscars, The Help, based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, is a story of the racism experienced by black maids working for white households in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Their plight takes place in the era of the Jim Crow laws and the subsequent push for Civil Rights, with the plot kick-started by the return of budding journalist Eugenia (played by Superbad’s Emma Stone), who seeks to highlight the pervasive discrimination by writing a book based on the experiences of the women she befriends.
Unfortunately, while promising much from the outset, Tate Taylor’s film fails to deliver, falling down in several areas. There is a strong ensemble cast present, but many of the roles inhabited are those of stock characters. Jessica Chastain is only really able to break free from the restrictiveness of her role as ditzy trophy wife Celia with an emotional vulnerability that seeps through in the second half of the movie. Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly plays the sort of stuck-up middle class housewife seen time and time again, only here it is with a racist twist.
As for the black ‘help’, Viola Davis gives a poignant performance as Aibileen, but there are obvious similarities between her and her colleagues with Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone With the Wind, which arguably serves to perpetuate the stereotype of the African-American matron. Just as McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress gong in 1939, Davis could deservedly walk away with a Best Actress statuette, but it also begs the question as to how far Hollywood depictions of black woman have really been allowed to progress over the past seventy years.
As well as many of the characters, the film’s comedic elements serve to detract from its overall effectiveness as a tale of prejudice. While it is at times heartfelt it often borders on
the saccharine. The historical setting is skimmed over with only fleeting references to the bigger picture, for example the 1963 assassination of activist Medgar Evers, and so what we are left with is a watered down tale of domestic racism. Davis’ performance makes The Help watchable, but at nearly two and a half hours long its predictability and frivolity prevent it from hitting the lofty heights the potentially powerful subject matter could have allowed it to.