In 2010 the Deschutes Country Library chose Kathryn Stockett's New York Times best selling debut novel, The Help, as the "Novel Idea... Read Together" program's book for the year. The program, which just wrapped it's eighth year, started based on the question, "What would happen if everyone in Deschutes County read the same book?" The Help's theme of racial segregation in the 1960s made the 2010 title even more interesting and important to read together because in the novel, just as in life at the time, the characters couldn't read the same books. Yes, they could read the same titles, but before the Civil Rights Movement really kicked into high gear, blacks and whites couldn't check out books from the same libraries or do a number of other things in the same facilities.
There's no doubt that for most who participated in A Novel Idea, The Help topped their lists of most anticipated movies of the summer. And count me among the ranks who joined a book club (albeit a short-lived one) with my friends and read The Help - and loved it. As with any highly anticipated film based on a beloved novel, expectations are high, but hopes that Hollywood doesn't screw it up are even higher. Seldom is the movie ever better than the book, but the best a person can hope for is that the essence of the book lives on in the film. I won't waste any more time - The Help lived up to my hopes and expectations and captured the meaningful and intimate heart of the story as well as its multidimensional characters.
The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. Aibileen (Viola Davis) and her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) are maids for white families. Aibileen and Minny work for Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly) and Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), respectively, who if mixed together would produce a Southern version of Mad Men's Betty Draper. Elizabeth and Hilly's friend Eugenia, aka Skeeter (Emma Stone), returns home from Ole Miss (where she actually finished her degree) and wants to be a writer. Skeeter tries to convince Aibileen and Minny to tell her their feelings about working for white families.
I'm not sure it would be possible to find a more talented and well-suited cast as the one found in The Help. The characters themselves were written so well in the first place, but to see the immensely talented roster of actresses bring these women to life is phenomenal. Hollywood, I hope you're watching, because there are arguably three to four award-worthy performances encased within this film.
Davis and Spencer both put on stellar performances as the domestics who risk everything to get their stories told and inspire change in Civil Rights-era America. Davis brings the stoic and thoughtfully introspective Aibileen, the story's narrator to life. While her narration carries the story, it's the non-verbal acting she does - the pain and protest in her eyes, for example, that help create a real person - not a caricature or stereotype. Spencer brilliantly steps into the role of Minny - perfectly executing her sass, fear and humanity.
Additionally, Stone and Howard both go all-out in what may be the best performances of their careers, so far. Stone, whom we've fallen in love with as Hollywood's go-to quirky and hilarious smart girl, takes on a role different from anything else she's ever played. Stone manages to portray Skeeter's hopefulness and naiveté, while still managing to let you know it's still her underneath it all - which is a good thing. As the opposite to forward-thinking Skeeter, Howard holds nothing back as Hilly, the socialite queen bee of Jackson, who's also the film's most outwardly racist character.
When I first read The Help, I found it so hard to believe that the story took place in the 1960s because as someone who was born in the mid-1980s, that kind of pre-Civil Rights segregation seems a world away. It's because of this disconnect between the generations that stories like The Help are more important than ever. The Help may deal with historical subject matter, but the story itself is that of emotional humanity - not a history lesson. And perhaps bringing this important historical matter to a human level will help us understand and connect with the past in order to move forward in the future.
Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Bryce Dallas Howard
Directed by Tate Taylor