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Oscar bait 2011: THE HELP is a masterpiece
By Joseph W. Smith III
August 19, 2011
**** (out of four)
Viola Davis will win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in “The Help.”
That’s a firm call -- I won’t even argue about it; the only real question is how many other wins and noms will go to this beautifully acted masterpiece.
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller -- now sitting at the New York Times’ No. 1 spot after months on the list -- combines meticulous detail and multi-character scope in the story of Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a young white writer who in 1962 undertakes a book about what it’s like being a black maid in a white Southern home.
She begins by enlisting Aibileen Clark (Davis), who has handled household duties in white homes for years (particularly child-rearing) -- and who will lose her job, or worse, if it’s found that she’s revealed her experiences: the years of insults and thankless work; the death of her son, who was injured and left to die by white employers; the warped world of suburban housewives in the sixties -- their prejudice, their pettiness, their smiling yet vicious ploys for power and prestige.
Ruling this pathetic little kingdom is Hilly Holbrook, a character so cruel, vain and hypocritical -- yet so feared and powerful -- that it’s hard to describe her without using words unsuited to a family newspaper.
Bryce Dallas Howard is frighteningly good in this role; I can’t recall the last time I wanted so badly to climb through the screen and strangle a character where she stood.
Also excellent: Allison Janney as Skeeter’s hard-nosed mother; Leslie Jordan as a feisty news editor; Octavia Spencer as Aibileen’s pull-no-punches pal; Jessica Chastain as a good-hearted wife who struggles against her white-trash label; and Stone, also Oscar-bait as one of the few whites who care how the maids feel.
Davis is amazing. From her first words in the opening scene, I was transfixed.
As she recalls to Skeeter her pains and struggles, every defeat and humiliation is written on her face; moments later, she’ll be hovering over her mistress’s daughter, pouring out the love and tenderness that the child’s own mother has withheld.
Navigating expertly through this maze of relationships, the film is one breath-taking scene after another -- confrontations, friendships, revelations, abuses, broken relationships and reconciliations.
As the white women climb their social ladder over the half-dead bodies of “the help,” I kept asking how often I’ve compromised my own beliefs just because I was afraid to look bad in front of others.
You see, it’s not so much a film about race relations as it is about relations in general; its great strength is the hope it holds out for healing and victory in a world that often seems to have gone completely mad.
Both the novel and the film have generated controversy because a white author (Stockett) and a white director (Tate Taylor) are telling us about black experiences. Blacks, of course, are welcome to tell this story, too; but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better than this.