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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

The Help

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4_Chicks_Small Judy Thorburn

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The Help

Nowadays, according to statistics, the majority of housekeepers and nannies are white. But that wasn't the case back in the 60's, especially in the Deep South, where African Americans, then referred to as Negros or “colored”, worked as domestic servants to the more affluent, well to do white people that treated them poorly as second class citizens.

Author Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has said it was because of her own close relationship with her grandmother's housekeeper, Dimitri, that she was inspired to write about black maids in white homes who were more than just the “help” doing the cooking and cleaning. They were more like mothers to the children they helped raise.

Stockett's book, 'The Help', aka the “little book that could”, became a runaway hit, landing the number one spot on the New York Times best seller list, selling more than three million copies and still going strong in paper back.

The blockbuster book comes to life in one of the summer's most anticipated movies, formidably helmed by actor/turned director Tate Taylor (2008's Pretty Ugly People) a longtime friend of Stockett, both having grown up in Jackson, Mississippi.

Rising star Emma Stone, in a break from her usual comedic role, shows off her adept skill as a serious actress as the frizzy, curly haired, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phalen, a recent college graduate who desperately wants to be a writer. After being turned down by a New York publisher, she lands a job writing a household cleaning advice column for the Jackson Journal. She decides to chat with a friend's maid, Abileen (the always brilliant Viola Davis, evoking quiet strength) for help in answering letters and soon discovers some deeply disturbing information. The long suffering Abileen begins to reveal stories about her mistreatment and blatant racial prejudice by her white employer that sets Skeeter on a new track. Convinced she has an idea for a powerful book to present to Miss Stein, her New York publisher (Mary Steenbergen), in a brave move, Skeeter secretly meets with more than a dozen black maids who share their point of view of what it is really like to work for white families. Skeeter feels compassion for the unappreciated female heros because of her personal experience being raised by Constantine (the great Cicely Tyson, seen in flashbacks) her family's loving servant who instilled in her self confidence and told her she was beautiful. Constantine suddenly disappeared from her life years ago and her story becomes a sideline thread that is delicately interweaved into the dynamics of the narrative.

The story's setting is Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60's during the civil rights era of racial unrest that was coming to a boiling point. Defying the strict and enforceable societal rules of the “Jim Crow” south, the courageous women are willing to put their lives at risk in order to get their voices heard.

Along with Stone and Davis, standouts from the multi ethnic ensemble of colorful (absolutely no pun intended) characters are Abileen's best friend, the feisty, sassy, no nonsense Minny (the wonderful Octavia Spencer); her despicable employer, Hilly Holbrook (effectively portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard), the racist, mean spirited, leader of the local white ladies who gather for lunch and social events, and Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the ditzy, sweet natured blonde bombshell, married to a rich man, but considered white trash and ostracized by Hilly and her friends. After Minny is fired for using the toilet in Hilly's home, she is hired by Celia who treats her with care and respect, and is impressed by Minny's mastery in the kitchen. In stark contrast with the other white woman, Celia seeing nothing wrong with dining at the same table with her maid. Hilly, meanwhile, gets her just dessert (literally) in the form of a pie filled with a special, unmentionable, ingredient.

Other supporting roles in the strong, predominately female cast includes Allison Janney as Skeeter's ailing, wig wearing mother Charlotte; Cissy Spacek is Hilly's spunky mother and Chris Lowell portrays Skeeter's eventual love interest, who starts off on the wrong foot, but quickly makes amends.

'The Help' is more than a chick flick. This is a compelling and poignant story punctuated by knock out performances by Spencer and Davis that should garner supporting actress nominations come Oscar time.

It is said that one person can change the world. Even a single act or the smallest whisper of a voice has the power and ability to make an impact on all our lives. As a book 'The Help', got the attention of millions who were moved by the plight of black housemaids. Now, adapted as a film, 'The Help' is sure to make an impact in the hearts and minds of millions who experience this story for the first time on the big screen.

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