Although I am yet to read Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, my impression is of a book which doesn’t shy away from the historical significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the incredible courage taken to write such a book, given the atrocities of the time.
The film however, did not quite convince me of this. Now adapted for the screen by Tate Taylor (supposedly one of the author’s childhood friends) much of the brutal truth is paired down and cleaned up.
Taking an impressive $166 million at the US box office, this is a mass crowd-pleaser slushy-weepy.
African-Americans in Jackson, Mississippi, are given their voice through sharing their stories of house-keeping for white women and their children, exposing the injustice they constantly face; maltreatment, disrespect and abuse.
Taylor pulls out every tearjerker moment possible, from romantic break-ups, cancer, abandoned toddlers and shamed women, keeping a constant stream of heart-wrenching material.
His fault comes in sweetening the action and therefore turning the film, as the Guardian say, into an ‘airbrushed fairytale’. This is more Mean Girls than melodrama.
Perhaps I’m slightly cynical; this has Oscar-bait written all over it.
Performances are excellent from Viola Davies as long-suffering maid Aibileen, Emma Stone as plucky journalist-in-training Skeeter, Jessica Chastain as the reject Stepford Wife and Sissy Spacek, who squeezes comedy out of a half-baked pie joke.
The film could feel long at 142 minutes, but manages to keep audience attention through its well-written script bringing emotional force and humour to the race-relations story.
Pushing past accusations of Disney-fied lessons in the civil rights movement, I enjoyed The Help’s empowering and uplifting message.
(A little context: he screenwriter/director Tate Taylor has had an interesting career. His only other stint as a director was in 2008 with Pretty Ugly People, a low budget comedy about losing weight. His career has mainly been as an actor in such gems as Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion ’97 and Planet of the Apes ’01. Let’s hope The Help marks the beginning of a beautiful award-filled season for Tate.)