When my wife convinced me to see “The Help,” I figured I was in for a Lifetime movie – that’s “guyspeak” for a dull, relationship-driven, plot-less tearjerker that sucks all hope and testosterone out of a fella.
Perhaps that’s an unfair thing to write of the Lifetime Channel, but that is, as they say, what they say.
Much to my surprise, “The Help,” based on the hit novel by Kathryn Stockett that has spent more than 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, is a laugh-out-loud and, yes, shed-a-tear film in which a decent story is painted gloriously by some outstanding performances, truly some of the best acting of the year so far.
Actress Viola Davis plays a black maid in the very racist 1960s Jackson, Miss., and she plays her role with an Oscar-worthy depth of character: convincingly laughing until it hurts, even while she suffers far beyond hurt, all with a powerful nobility that will make her character, Aibileen Clark, one to remember for years to come.
Actress Octavia Spencer bowls through the screen with an uproariously funny, yet still genuine and endearing portrayal of another downtrodden housekeeper, Minny Jackson.
Even Emma Stone, a young starlet whose resume is laden with MTV-like films only a teenager could love, surprised me with her earnest portrayal of “Skeeter” Phelan, a social misfit in Southern white culture who dares to interview the black maids of Jackson in order to share with the world their both tragic and inspiring life stories.
And even though I was surprised by how much a superhero-loving, explosion-craving guy like me enjoyed this film, I was even further surprised by its worldview.
Unlike many films set in the early civil-rights-era South, “The Help” refuses to give in to the PC pressure to portray all black folk as noble victims and all white folk as either hateful or ignorant oppressors.
Neither does it make the error that so many other films have of sugar-coating the rampant racism of the time.
Instead, “The Help” eschews the stereotypes and the heavy-handed preaching to allow a truer picture of humanity to shine through: Characters who are flawed and characters who are evil and characters who are noble, regardless of race. Despite the fact the storlyine is clearly about color, the movie isn’t so much about race as it is about people.
At the crux of the storyline is one black maid in particular, Aibileen Clark. Like the whole, underbelly subculture of Jackson’s housekeepers, Aibileen cooks the meals, cleans the houses and raises the children of Mississippi’s white families for little money and even less respect. To make matters worse, cultural norms and state laws have crushed her and her fellow maids into a docile subservience that looks a lot like slavery. Speaking out, standing up or fighting in the early days of the civil rights movement, for someone like Aibileen, would be akin to suicide.
Which is why all the more compelling is her decision to trust a white girl, Skeeter, to publish a book based on her life story.
For Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny and the others who eventually team up to make the truth known, their crisis of conscience becomes the theme of the film.
“Open your Bibles to Exodus 4:10,” the preacher declares in “The Help,” referring to the passage where Moses worries that he can’t lead God’s people out of oppression because he is “slow of speech and tongue.”
But slow of speech or not, when God calls, it isn’t talent that’s required, it’s heart.
“Courage is doing what’s right, despite the weakness of our flesh,” the preacher continues. “And love is when you’re compelled to put yourself in harm’s way for your fellow man.”
Yet could you “love your enemies,” as Christ says, according to that definition? Could you put yourself in harm’s way for them?
Unlike many movies with the cliché “preacher scene,” the exhortation in “The Help” flows naturally in the story, just one of many factors that breaks the heart – and more importantly, the fear – of Aibileen to do what needs doin’.
The film’s final lines reinforce the overwhelmingly positive worldview in “The Help”:
“God says we need to love our enemies. It’s hard to do. But it can start by telling the truth,” Aibileen says. “Once I told the truth, I felt free.”
“The Help” is not a perfect film. Some of the characters are too thin, too much like amusement-park charicatures of real people. But even in these roles, an immensely talented cast refuses to become a cartoon, creating depth where there may not have been much written.
If you go, and I recommend it, be prepared to laugh. It’s a funny film. Be be prepared to cry. Be prepared to be inspired. “The Help” is one of the best films of the year so far – even if you’re a guy.
- “The Help” contains about 20, mostly light obsenities and a half-dozen profanities. In one scene, however, an obscenity is spoken strongly for effect.
- The film has a minor amount of sexuality, no nudity and no on-screen sex. A pair of women are seen dressing, but only down to their modest, 1960s undergarments. One female character is derided as a floozy, seen often tight dresses, showing leg and cleavage. In one scene she wears a bathing suit and is “accosted” by her husband, but only with some passionate kisses. Another couple shares a kiss. There is a veiled discussion about homosexuality, as a mother fears her daughter isn’t “interested” in men, a scene primarily played for comic effect.
- The film has some significant violence, though little is actually seen. In one scene, for example, a woman overhears another being beaten by her husband, but the beating is not shown. In another, police forcibly arrest a maid and strike her, but the blows are not shown. In yet another, a woman meanly spanks her toddler child, but the camera cuts away. There is a scene in which a woman miscarries, with extensive bleeding about the floor of her bathroom.
- The film has no occult references, but does touch on Christianity, including a painting of Christ and the church scene, part of which is described above. God is mentioned casually and respectfully in a few instances, though in one scene the villain of the film spouts some bad theology to justify her racist and unkind demeanor.