The Help

Year: 2011
Studio: Dreamworks SKG
Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Tate Taylor/Kathryn Stockett
Cast: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Jessica Chastain, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek

It's hard to describe the feeling you get that this film is a Disney kind of civil rights story, the sort of thing you'd expect Oprah Winfrey to produce or shepherd into being.

It's a little unfair to feel that way because it certainly isn't about the more violent side of the civil rights struggle with its murders, beatings lynchings or overt hatred. It's about the insidious undercurrent of entrenched racism that still existed in polite society when the civil rights movement was starting up.

Emma Stone is Skeeter, an educated young woman determined to be a journalist. When a big New York newsmagazine expresses tentative interest in her idea of a story about the servants and maids among the predominantly black female underclass in her southern small town home, she asks maid Aibileen (Davis) to tell her story in secret to write the article.

But the article needs more, and Skeeter has to try and convince Aibileen's friends to come forward and tell their own stories of mistreatment at the hands of their bosses in secret so as not to face the wrath of the community.

It's all a prism through which we see the lives of Aibileen, Minnie (Spencer) and their contemporaries – from the heartbreak of raising everyone else's children but their own to not even being allowed to use the household toilet.

The reason it feels like a Disney version is because there's no real grit. It's definitely for adults and it deals with adult subject matter, but there's a very Spielbergian sheen to the proceedings.

If it isn't the unshakable nobility of the downtrodden (woe betide any director who portrays a black in the struggle for equality as anything other than decent, down-home smart and benevolent), it's Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, relishing being the villain so much she might as well be twirling a long black moustache.

But despite the off tone, it works. Even subplots that would seem on paper that they don't really belong feel right, like the lonely plight of ostracised white trash Celia (Chastain, making you feel slightly naughty for realising how sexy she is after her angelic turn in The Tree of Life).

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