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We made the mistake of actually watching the teevee ad -- we usually hit the mute button -- for The Help before our screening of the film. After the spot, honestly, we wanted to be anywhere but screening the film. Stick with us. There's a point coming. . .
IN SHORT: Best of the Year. [Rated PG-13. 137 minutes]
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), perhaps foreshadowing all that will come later in the decade, isn't content to just hang her diploma from Ole Miss on the wall and settle down to marriage and baby making. Skeeter is determined to become a professional writer. A gig writing a "home hints" type column under the pseudonym "Miss Myrna" for her local newspaper, the Jackson Journal, is her in to the business. Skeeter is handed a foot-and-a-half thick stack of letters, none of which she can answer because of a pampered upbringing. So she asks a maid for help.
That would be Abileen Clark (Viola Davis) who, in addition to cleaning duties, acts as mammy to the Leefolt family's toddler Mae Mobley (Eleanor & Emma Henry). "Mammy" is a classic southern term appropriate to the times. Abileen's only child, a son, died in an accident. She has channeled her mothering energies into raising 17 children for the white families she has worked for in her career.
Skeeter soon realizes that the maid has a more interesting story to tell than answering questions about chopping onions. Skeeter begins to recognize that "the help" is a lot more significant to her way of life . . . she (nice white girl) goes to college, while "they" silently endure cultural and race abuse. We shouldn't need to explain segregation and the 1960s Civil Rights movement to you -- google "Medgar Evers" for background on a key historical moment that occurs during this story. What is new, at least to us, is a Mississippi law that forbid any journalistic (sic) coverage of race relations determined to aid in the betterment of the negro race.
A shudder just went whipping up and down Cranky's spine writing that last sentence. What a different world it was near fifty years ago.
The leading white female of the community is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who, leading her women's group, puts forth the Home Health Sanitation Initiative; the idea that all homes should have separate bathrooms for the help -- the idea of negro asses on white toilet seats is enough to make any proper lady shudder. She fires her maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), for doing so. Minnie will later bake her a pie. That's an important story point which we could ... but won't ... even hint about. <g>
Minny will also pockets a "found" ring, pockets it. She's no angel, either, and will wind up working for the local equivalent of white trash -- she's not a "local" girl -- named Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). Her role becomes that of a teacher to the girl, who knows nothing of how to be a good wife/ mother/ femme head of house. That includes cooking because just 'cuz they have a maid to do the work, that doesn't mean the ladies aren't supposed to know how to do it..
Back to Skeeter . . . whose idea meets resistance from the rest of the local help, since telling tales could get them fired. Skeeter's got Abbie and Viola on board but a publisher in New York wants enough for a book. And stuff happens.
That's just background. The Help is, top to bottom, an extraordinary movie to sit through. We expect it to do massive business come awards time. We also note that it is one of the rare films that, while we expect it to do massive awards business, is a terrific drama to watch. Pure and simple. When we smell Oscar we always put the same rating at the bottom of our review . . .
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Help, he would have paid . . .
Not every film about Civil Rights has to feature pickets and protests and attack dogs. The subtlety of inserting all the racial touch points defining an area like Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960s without bashing them over your head (so to speak) is what makes The Help the Best of the Year.
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