The Help Movie
Every awards season there is one American independent film that captures the hearts of the voters and comes away with a cabinet full of silverware to reward its achievements in the mainstream. Lost in Translation, Sideways and Precious fall squarely into this category and the smart money suggests that 2011’s awards darling will be Tate Taylor’s The Help. Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, the film takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, where a number of affluent white families employ African American domestic helpers to tend to their homes and help raise their children. We are introduced to two wildly different groups of women: the young white women who have been raised by black helpers and are now starting families of their own; and the helpers themselves, who must contend with all manner of dehumanizing racist behavior from employers who were once, to all intent and purposes, their own children.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is different from the other young women her age, more interested in starting her career as a budding journalist than in finding a suitable man to marry. Seeing the way The Help are mistreated inspires her to document their stories, but the women are understandably reluctant to put their jobs and possibly their lives on the line for her. However, when life for Aibileen (Viola Davis) becomes impossible to bear she decides Skeeter may provide the key to her salvation.

While The Help is a broad depiction of the racial tensions that plague the Southern States of the USA, especially in the 1960s, the film offers a slew of fine female characters which are in turn commendably portrayed by the likes of Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek and Octavia Spencer, as well as Davis and Stone. The film should also resonate with audiences here in Hong Kong, who are well accustomed to domestic helpers, often of differing nationality, living as subordinate members of their own family. It is commonplace to see children throughout the city being raised by young women who are not their birth parents, while Mum and Dad stay late at work or out on the town. People often comment on how detrimental this may prove for the children in question, although the effect it has on the helpers goes largely unconsidered.

Come the end of the year, The Help may well appear in award nomination lists, most likely for Taylor’s witty yet thought-provoking screenplay adaptation as well as the performances from any of the film’s major female leads. Jessica Chastain, who has appeared out of nowhere this year with her performances in this and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is one possible nominee, while Davis and Spencer are also likely candidates for their strong-willed portrayals of women courageously resilient in the face of abject racism. More than anything, however, the film itself deserves praise as a thoroughly entertaining slice of historical entertainment with the power to produce laughter as well as tears.