Gail Choice | 8/10/2011, 7:53 p.m.
Check your family history, and you just might find someone that was once referred to as "the help." Black women, who cooked, cleaned and cared for the children of their employers, generally Whites.
Set in Mississippi, "The Help" is a rich, funny and at times disturbing look at Black women in the turbulent 1960s who made their living working in White households. It's rich because the story of these women seems to have been swept under a rug, almost like a Black reality we don't want to remember.
Funny because Black folk seemed to be blessed with a sense of humor, even in the most difficult times; and disturbing because of the situations and difficulties these women faced, sometimes putting their pride and dignity on the line.
Based on a true story, "The Help" stars Academy Award nominee Viola Davis ("Doubt") as Aibileen Clark, the solid, knows her place, but ever-watchful woman who sees you coming before you get there. Octavia Spencer ("Dinner for Schmucks") stars as Minny Jackson, and without a doubt this is her "breakout" role. From her intense eyes, to her rapid-fire, take-no-prisoners attitude, Spencer had the audience cheering for her from the start. And Emma Stone ("Superbad") stars as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, the young White woman who took it upon herself to tell the story of the help, even though at that time it was against Mississippi law.
When I saw Davis as Aibileen Clark walking, slightly bent, displaying controlled power, with watchful eyes, I recognized that look, mannerism and attitude. Spencer as Minny Jackson had a mouth on her and an attitude--I recognized that, too.
From bad decisions, to "oh, no she didn't," "The Help" is a story worth telling and worth seeing.
No doubt mainstream Hollywood will focus on the Emma Stone character and the havoc she wrought in Mississippi society. There is even a society outcast, Celia Foote, played by Jessica Chastain ("The Tree of Life"), a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, who married into a society where she clearly didn't belong. She too aligns herself with the help for her own reasons.
And Academy Award winning actress ("Coal Miners Daughter") Sissy Spacek is priceless as the mother to the meanest woman in town.
Indeed, the book was groundbreaking when it was published, and I expect it will enjoy brisk sales at the release of this movie. But the real stars are the actresses who play the roles of the domestic servants, which also includes Cicely Tyson ("Idlewild") as Constantine Jefferson, the longtime help of Skeeter's family who was mysteriously let go after 29 years.
It's no secret that roles for Black actresses are scarce, and these roles offered them the opportunity to take hold of very "meaty" roles. Unfortunately a number of Blacks won't see the film just because of the fact that African American women are playing roles that for sometime were the only ones they could get. If you're of that mind, and you think this is a step back, think again.
"The Help," although written from the point of view of a White woman, is very much an African American story. Black women did the work, and raised scores of White children, and many sent their own children to colleges and universities off the sweat of their backs. The outstanding performance of the Black actresses in the major roles brings dignity and historical correctness to a job that's rarely discussed in open forums.
Go see "The Help." You just might see another side of Black survival that may surprise you and stir up a lot of conversation. In theaters now.
Gail can be reached at email@example.com.