While far from being critically slammed, 2011’s The Help didn’t quite achieve the kind of hype or awards success that can now be expected from Autumn/Winter releases tackling themes of racism and black disempowerment in historical American settings (Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave).
When Awards Season 2012 rolled around, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel received a combined total of 13 Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, whereas in 2013 Lincoln amassed 29, and last year 12 Years a Slave received 26.
Although each film’s statuette hoard went on to be fairly similar, The Help’s triptych of Best Supporting Actress awards for Octavia Spencer is a relatively modest haul, particularly when compared to 12 Years’ domination of the Best Picture category.
This instalment of Second Chance takes a look at The Help’s achievements which went unrecognised by major awarding bodies, to explain just why it deserves that 8.1 on IMDb and why anyone unconvinced should give it another chance.
First: acting. Surely designed to win ensemble awards, The Help is crammed with actors performing at the top of their game. Despite Viola Davis’ Best Actress nominations, The Help is without a central protagonist. Emma Stone’s Skeeter Phelan is perhaps the most relatable character, for young Western audiences at least, but this is a real actors’ movie in which no one is overshadowed or upstaged; Davis, Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, and especially Jessica Chastain fully embody their characters and wow whenever they come into focus.
Although ultimately and perhaps inevitably beaten by Meryl Streep’s Iron Lady, Davis’ performance as Aibileen, the first black maid who agrees to be interviewed for Skeeter’s racism-exposing book, is as commendable for her affecting voiceover as for her ability to aptly suggest loneliness and dejection simply through physical bearing. Stone deservingly gained a higher-profile platform here to showcase the talent displayed in a string of smaller roles, and proved her adaptability to a period setting after her riveting and whole-hearted leading performance in the previous year’s high school flick Easy A.
Despite the gravity of the cause Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) represent – providing a voice for the oppressed – The Help can be a very funny film. Besides Minny’s ‘terrible awful’ (a pie with a particularly unsavoury secret ingredient delivered to her former employer), Taylor creates some delightfully low-key comic scenes, particularly in the film’s lighter opening act. A standout scene is Skeeter’s visit to the offices of The Jackson Journal, where the harried editor (Leslie Jordan) prophetically jokes “I guarantee ya, one day they’re gonna figure out cigarettes’ll kill ya.” Physical comedy derives from the difference in height between Stone and the compact Jordan, who almost has to jump to reach a folder atop a bookcase.
The Help’s multi-stranded narrative unfolds among an impeccably created imaging of 1960s small-town America, which rivals Mad Men for the detailed work put into hairstyles, clothing, cars and home decorating – and all without a major awards nod.
The film’s social commentary extends beyond exposing the cruelty and hypocrisy of small-town Jackson’s race-dictated class system to more satirical observation of the lives and customs of the town’s elite. Former beauty queen and mother-of-Skeeter Charlotte Phelan starts out squawking and overbearing, screeching ridiculous lines including “your eggs are dying, would it kill you to go on a date?” to 23 year old Skeeter. But throughout her meticulous performance Allison Janney slowly crafts a heartbreaking portrayal of a dying woman filled with regret over condoning and perpetuating the racism of her hometown.
Jessica Chastain’s Celia Foote is comparable for the twinned senses of comedy and tragedy she embodies. Blonde, loud and seemingly ignorant of how whites are expected to treat their black maids, Celia is an outcast from Jackson’s female social circle, led by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Howard’s repugnant Hilly is an absolute joy to behold. Her commitment to her racist beliefs and unswerving manipulation of those around her makes her into a symbol for the force of oppression, and of course, she gets taken down a peg or two by the end.
In The Help’s opening minutes Chastain’s Celia is also close to caricature; she’s a pin-up doll of a newlywed who looks the part but is useless in the kitchen. Yet Celia’s character arc is surely the saddest save that of the poorly treated maids, a fact highlighted through the way in which she and Minny (Octavia Spencer) derive strength from each other. While Spencer plays Minny for laughs as well as she makes us feel for her domestic situation, Chastain’s masterful oscillation between ditsy, immature homemaker and bereaved and broken woman was, for these eyes, wrongly overlooked by awards committees.
A great strength of The Help is the complexity of its moral standpoint; it’s never as clear-cut as black oppressed = good and white oppressors = bad. Around the halfway point the film really starts to take an emotional toll with a black citizen being killed in a hate crime and Celia miscarrying in rapid succession. This snapshot of the hardships faced by The Help’s characters demonstrates how far the film goes to document the experiences of each race. The Help is more than a self-righteous, preachy tale of an educated white girl heroically handing out hope to downtrodden and exploited black women. It’s a detailed and convincing portrait of an entire community poisoned by hatred, poised on the brink of positive change kickstarted by the bravery of some individuals – black and white – brave enough to challenge the status quo.