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The Help

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2010:10:04 19:31:06

Octavia Spencer (right) goes shopping with Viola Davis.

The Help

Directed by Tate Taylor

Opens Aug. 10

Read an interview with director Tate Taylor and actress Octavia Spencer

If you’ve flown anywhere in the last couple of years, you’d recognize the three violet birds on the gold cover of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help, prominent at airport bookshops everywhere. And if you haven’t read the book but have seen The Help’s music-filled trailer for writer/director Tate Taylor’s film adaptation, you’d think it’s a light comedy. In fact it’s about a history given little previous attention: the relationships between black housekeepers and the white women they worked for in the South during the 1960s. While moments of humor offer the quick relief of an afternoon shower in the summertime, the thick haze of racism and discrimination present during the fight for civil rights never dispels.

After graduating from Ole Miss, Eugenia, aka “Skeeter” (Emma Stone), returns to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., an oddity. Her best friends Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) have become wives and mothers, but Skeeter aims to be a journalist and takes over the housekeeping column in the local newspaper, writing about activities she’s never done in her privileged life. So she looks to the only women she’s seen do domestic work: the black women in every affluent white woman’s kitchen.

Aibileen (Viola Davis), who works for Elizabeth, agrees to help Skeeter but has no answers when Skeeter asks about what it’s like to work for less than minimum wage for white folk who don’t share a toilet with them for fear of disease. Skeeter wants to write a book about “the help,” but there’s great risk for the help in telling the truth, a cathartic risk Aibileen and her spitfire best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) finally begin to take.

Minny works for Celia (Jessica Chastain), a white woman who doesn’t understand the discriminatory rules of engagement because of her “white trash” background. Hilly, on the other hand, is a frightening racist who frowns upon Skeeter’s progressive attitude.

By writing down their stories, Skeeter gives a voice to women who had been silent, but there’s a slightly distasteful (and not uncommon in movies) element of white people coming to the rescue of blacks here—yes, Skeeter has freedoms that are refused Aibileen and she is at risk herself, but the idea that these are just complicated relationships between white women and the black women who raise them and work for them is sugar-coating a sour apple. Only one half of the equation is making the best out of a shitty situation.

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