The Help…Mississippi’s Burning in a skirt

Actress Emma Stone is certainly very busy these days. It seems like only yesterday she played the love interest in the nerd-rom-com that was Super Bad. Now, when she is not being wooed by Jim Carrie via YouTube, she seems to be in everything.My daughter Meg pointed out this film to me. She then rented it from iTunes and pretty much insisted that I watch it. I am glad I did.
Set in Mississippi during the civil rights unrest that was the sixties Emma plays Skeeter Phelan. Skeeter has graduated from college and now wants to be a writer. She returns to her home town to re-establish ties with old friends and to check on her mother who has cancer.

The first thing Skeeter does is get a job with the local paper, ghost writing for the Agony Aunt columnist who is having a baby. Viola Davis plays Aibileen Clark one of the many black ladies who work as “the help” to the white members of the community. The whole cast work brilliantly in this ensemble film. I will admit that I was overjoyed to see Cicely Tyson in a big-ish cameo as Skeeter’s family maid. Of course I have to mention Sissy Spacek  who has the small role of Hilly’s long suffering mother. She is delightful to watch.

Now amazingly the film’s main  plot deals with the issue of toilets. The local white community follows Hilly Holbrook’s lead on the “separate but equal” practice which was prevalent in the sixties. Hilly has gotten the local government to pass a law that makes it a criminal act to use the white residents bathroom. The help must instead use an outside one specially made for them.

As played by Bryce Dallas Howard, Hilly is a nasty piece of work. A bully who is sly, malicious, and vengeful Hilly rules over her little flock of the Ladies Club with an iron fist. It seems that while the black community might be good enough to clean the white folks’s houses, cook their meals and look after their children, it is not okay to use their employers bathroom.

Skeeter is outraged at this new law and decides to write about the ‘separate but equal’ travesty. She teams up with local housekeeper Aibileen with the idea of writing a book. This book will be filled with all the terrible, funny and sad things that the black workers have encountered . At first the only “help” that will work with Skeeter is the slightly hesitant Aibileen, but as events in the Mississippi town get worse she finds herself inundated with offers of more stories.

Mary Steenburgen has a microscopic role as the editor Elain Stein who encourages Skeeter to write her book and guides her toward publication with her company. It was nice to see Steenburgen on screen again and I do wish they had used her a bit more.

I loved this film. It has the same feeling as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and Driving Miss Daisy. This film made me angry, made me laugh and made me cry. I cannot begin to express how well this film was presented. The sets, the location, and the costumes all felt like the south in the sixties.

The characters as they were written also felt right. Overall a real gem of a film. It attempts to show that some people were racially aware in the civil rights fraught sixties. I think it does this very well, without resorting to bloodshed or gun play.

And on a closing note, never has the phrase “Eat my Shit.” been so appropriate and funny.

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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