If your first reaction to the new Dreamworks film The Help is, “Dear Lord, not another Driving Miss Daisy, where African Americans are still playing servants,” you will be pleasantly surprised. The Help is a harsher, realistic look at the lives of domestic workers in the last days of the Jim Crowe South and the daily indignities African American workers endured.
But that is not what makes The Help a must see. It is the Oscar worthy performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as friends Abilene Clark and Minny Jackson. At last, Davis has gotten a part that proves she is not only capable of being a movie star, but one of best actresses in film today. It isn’t going out on much of a limb to predict that she\’ll win Oscar for her nuanced work in this film when February rolls around, because hers is not just one of the great performances this year, but one of the best in recent memory.
Together, Davis and Spencer help elevate what could have been a corny, nostalgic (for the wrong reasons) movie into something that celebrates the power of the individual. But in addition, it is the stellar work by the entire supporting cast who help prevent The Help from descending into clichés. Every actor and actress (literally down to those with just a few lines) does extraordinary work.
Emma Stone is fine in her first major role as \’Skeeter\’ Phelan, the young lady who was raised by the family’s African American maid (Constantine, played by Cicely Tyson), who has disappeared without a word, but her parents won’t tell her what happened. Skeeter loves Constantine as much as her own mother (maybe more) and it is this incident that is the catalyst that makes her want to interview maids and ask them what it is like raising white children and how they are treated like they don’t matter, despite their important role in the families they work for.
Also noteworthy are Bryce Dallas Howard, who is fantastic as the “villain” of the story, Hilly Holbrook, who is all frills and sweetness on the outside, but an unapologetic racist and someone who will exact revenge on anyone who gets in her way. Jessica Chastain is touching and funny as Celia Foote, the social outcast who Minny goes to work for. She is a Marilyn Monroe type sexpot, who is very sweet and vulnerable, but clueless as to why the other housewives in Jackson (lead by Hilly) treat her like she has a contagious disease. She not only needs a maid, she needs company, guidance and a friend, which Minny provides, and Celia provides her a safe haven.
One minor issue with film is lack of faults in Davis\’ and Stones\’ characters. Davis\’ is saved from being too saintly by multi-layered performance, but still but would\’ve been nice to see her misstep just once. Stones\’ character is also a bit too good to be true and her only fault is being mean to her blind dates. Opposite, Howard\’s could have used at least ONE redeeming quality, so there wasn\’t so much reliance on Howard\’s performance to make her a believable human being. Spencer\’s character is the best written, because she is likeable, in spite of her short temper and acid tongue
Hopefully, The Help will do well at the box office and we will see more movies starring Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer!