“The Help” (2011): A Controversial Reflection on Civil Rights through Hollywood’s Lens – Film Review

Released in 2011, “The Help” directed by Tate Taylor, is a film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name. The movie dives into the complex world of Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s, focusing on the lives of black maids working in white households. Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone, the film attempts to tackle the sensitive themes of racism, inequality, and the civil rights movement from the perspective of both African American maids and the white families for whom they work.

Exploring the Narrative and Its Reception

“The Help” centers around Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a young white woman and aspiring writer who decides to document the experiences of African American maids. She focuses on Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), two maids who share their hardships and the overt racism they face daily. The narrative unfolds as Skeeter’s project reveals unsettling truths about the relationships between the maids and their employers.

While “The Help” received acclaim for its performances, particularly those of Davis and Spencer, and was a box office success, it also faced significant criticism for its handling of racial themes. Critics and some viewers pointed out that the film portrayed a white savior narrative, with Skeeter’s role as the catalyst for change overshadowing the more nuanced and painful experiences of the maids themselves. This aspect of the story sparked debates about the appropriateness of framing historical racial struggles through the lens of white protagonists in film.

Behind the Scenes: Production Insights

The film was shot primarily in Mississippi, which added authenticity to the setting but also brought its own set of challenges, including dealing with the heat and ensuring that the portrayal of the 1960s South was accurate and respectful of the era’s volatile social dynamics. Production designer Mark Ricker meticulously recreated the interiors and exteriors of the homes and workplaces, paying close attention to the historical details that would immerse viewers in the period.

Director Tate Taylor, who grew up in the South, aimed to bring a personal touch to the film, ensuring sensitivity and authenticity in the depiction of racial issues. However, the complexities involved in discussing such a loaded historical period meant that balancing historical accuracy with narrative impact was a constant challenge.

Casting and Performances

Viola Davis’s portrayal of Aibileen Clark is a standout, bringing depth and dignity to her character with a performance that earned her several award nominations. Octavia Spencer’s role as Minny provided the film with moments of both humor and intense drama, balancing the story’s heavier themes with her dynamic screen presence.

However, years after the release, Viola Davis expressed regret about her role in “The Help,” citing concerns that the film did not adequately capture the true experiences and voices of the maids it portrayed. Her reflections highlight ongoing discussions about who gets to tell African American stories in Hollywood and the importance of having people of color in control of their own narratives.

Soundtrack and Score

The musical score, composed by Thomas Newman, subtly underscored the film’s emotional and dramatic arcs without overshadowing the story. The soundtrack, featuring songs from the era, also played a crucial role in setting the tone and enhancing the authenticity of the film’s period setting.

Delving Into Specific Scenes and Their Significance

One of the most pivotal scenes in “The Help” occurs when Aibileen shares her experiences with Skeeter, recounting the pain and struggle of working for white families who often treat her with disdain despite her loyalty and care. This scene is crucial for its emotional depth and for highlighting the complex relationships between the maids and the families they serve. Viola Davis’s performance here is particularly powerful, offering a window into the silent resilience and quiet suffering of her character.

Another significant moment is Minny’s revelation about the “terrible awful” she did to Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), her former employer. This scene blends humor with a stark portrayal of rebellion against the oppressive conditions faced by the maids. Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Minny delivers both strength and vulnerability, encapsulating the spirit of defiance that underpins much of the maids’ stories.

The White Savior Narrative Critique

The film has been critiqued for its reliance on a white savior narrative, centered on Skeeter’s role in bringing the maids’ stories to light. While the intent might have been to create a bridge for contemporary audiences to understand the historical context, this choice has the unintended effect of diverting the focus from the maids’ autonomy and resilience to Skeeter’s journey of self-discovery and moral awakening. This framing suggests that the maids needed Skeeter to legitimize their experiences, a perspective that detracts from their agency and the reality of their initiative and courage.

This narrative choice is a significant point of contention and speaks to broader issues in Hollywood regarding whose stories are told and who gets to tell them. The criticism aligns with Viola Davis’s later comments expressing her regrets about the film, specifically how it did not fully give voice to the true experiences of African American women during the civil rights movement.

Behind the Scenes: Challenges and Achievements

The production of “The Help” was marked by an effort to maintain historical accuracy in its depiction of 1960s Mississippi, from costume design to set decoration. However, balancing historical accuracy with a narrative that resonated with a broad audience presented significant challenges. The filmmakers’ choices about what aspects of the era and the maids’ lives to highlight were influenced by a combination of historical research and narrative requirements aimed at appealing to contemporary viewers.

The film’s director, Tate Taylor, and the production team worked closely with the author of the novel, Kathryn Stockett, to ensure that the adaptation stayed true to the spirit of her book while also making the story accessible to those unfamiliar with the source material. This collaborative process was crucial in shaping the film’s approach to storytelling, which sought to engage audiences with a blend of drama, humor, and social commentary.

Cultural Impact and Continued Discussions

“The Help” sparked considerable dialogue about the representation of race and history in film, contributing to ongoing debates about the responsibilities of filmmakers when depicting sensitive subjects. The film’s success at the box office and among certain segments of audiences shows that there is a considerable appetite for stories that address America’s racial history, albeit the critiques suggest a need for more nuanced and authentic portrayals.

The discussions surrounding “The Help” are reflective of a larger cultural reckoning with how stories are told in Hollywood and who is empowered to tell them. The film remains a touchstone in discussions about diversity in film, the portrayal of historical events, and how cinema can influence public perceptions of history.

In further analysis, it would be important to explore how “The Help” fits into the broader narrative of films dealing with similar themes, and what its legacy might be in inspiring future filmmakers to approach such stories with a deeper focus on authenticity and respect for the subjects they portray. This involves a continued examination of how films can both reflect and shape societal understanding and the ways in which they can contribute to or hinder progress in addressing complex social issues.

Related post

Leave a Reply