By now,we have all heard Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer give tearful speeches at awards ceremonies. We have heard about the sacrifices made by generations of women before them so that they could be there,receiving those awards. Some of us,perhaps,wept as they did. By now,we know The Help has been certified good. A powerful indictment of racial segregation in the suburban America of the early 60s,it also affirms the strength of the women who come together to tell their stories.
Yet a second watch makes you wonder if The Help is not as misogynist as it is feminist. Bryce Dallas Howard as the racist Hilly Holbrook is simply evil. She spits and hisses helplessly as the plot turns against her,looks dishevelled and grows a boil on her lip. Elizabeth,playing second fiddle to Hilly,is blonde and confused. Even Hillys mother,who is sympathetic to the black women working in their house,is little more than a dotty,cackling old lady. In contrast,Emma Stone as Skeeter,a young writer,is laughed at by the other women but emerges triumphant in the end (this is not a spoiler,how else was it supposed to turn out?). The film might have more than its fair share of the Cinderella complex. Only in this case,Cinderella gets a job and goes to New York while her suitor walks off in a huff.
Davis and Spencer deliver powerhouse performances,revisiting the Mammy figure and portraying it refreshingly free of cliche although the scriptwriter has been criticised for making Davis speak in a dialect that is far too old-timey. Racial discrimination can perhaps be depicted without trying to wring the last tear out of audiences.
The DVD version of The Help includes a video of The living proof,sung by Mary J Blige,composed especially for the film and contributing generously to its high-octane sentimentality. It also includes two scenes that were cut from the film. One is a droll scene where Skeeters boyfriend goes to meet her mother and reveals that his father is a Republican senator. In the other,a battered Minnie calls Aibileen from a phone booth and says she has decided to leave her husband. With her children gathered around her,the indomitable Minnie finally breaks down. Director Tate Taylor explains the scene was too bleak to fit into the films soaring finish. But a slightly less neat ending might have made The Help a more compelling,if darker,film.