A World Within the Home


DIRECTOR: Tate Taylor

CAST: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek

Rating: ****

How does it feel to be raising white man's children knowing yours is being raised by someone else?" Aibileen Clark has the answer to the first part of the question, she has raised 17 white children as the household help. For the second, as long and hard as she stares at her son's graduation photograph, she can't find the words. No one has asked her that question before. And the town she lives in, Jackson, Mississippi, certainly doesn't want to hear the answer.

Clark, played by an astonishing Viola Davis, is one of the numerous Black helps working for prominent southern White families in Jackson in the Sixties. Martin Luther King has just announced his Million Man March, but the equality discussion is elsewhere. Here, equal is about building the help a toilet "of their own" outside the house so that they don't soil the one for the family.

Based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, and written for the film and directed by her childhood friend Tate Taylor, The Help gives you a view of lives led in the margins. It's about a time and place seemingly in the past, and it's about racism, but as someone asks Aibileen for the first time about what she thinks, it forces you to take another look at people you see but never see, hear but never hear.

An aspiring writer, Skeeter (Stone), decides to tell the stories of Aibileen and the others when she comes home from graduation to find that her maid of 29 years apparently quit without a reason. The curtain of silence, she observes, hides more than she has cared to see before.

Ailbileen is the first to break that silence, followed by her friend Minny (Spencer). Minny has just been sacked for daring to use the house toilet during a storm. Scared as they are, when they begin telling Skeeter their stories, they won't be stopped.

Taylor paces the telling of their stories beautifully as he does the telling of an era and town balanced on scales that it knows are tilted. If the Aibileens and the Minnys are on one end of the spectrum, at the other end is a hesitantly authoritarian Elizabeth, an unquestioning traditionalist Joleen, an unknowing and carefree Celia (Chastain), and the proud and arrogant Hilly (Howard).

The Help pits Aibileen's quiet, long and intelligent suffering against Hilly's unending and calculated cruelty. In the fine Davis (earlier nominated for an Oscar for Doubt) and in Howard (in one of her best roles ever), it couldn't have asked for two better performances.

Spencer as the saucy Minny and Chastain in the difficult role of the ditzy employer she finds a home which contribute equally to make The Help one of the most moving films to have hit screens for some time.

Yes it works at getting those tears flowing and yes it has drawn some criticism for not being authentic enough in depicting the painful disparity, but in putting rarely heard voices on screen and telling it in a story as regonisable as this, The Help deserves only praise.

The film has been described as a Gone with the Wind from Mammy's perspective, a suggestion that Skeeter's editor actually scoffs at. What this film underlines though is that in the eyes of all those who read that book, and continue to do so, Tara is as incomplete without Scarlett O'Hara as without Mammy.


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