06 October 2011
Space to speak
A film review of The Help by Sophie Lister, Damaris
It's Mississippi in the 1960s, and an entire social group live their lives beneath the radar. They cook, clean, and ensure the smooth running of the houses in which they work. They have complex relationships with their wealthy white mistresses, even raising their children. And yet these black housemaids aren't even afforded the right to use their employers' bathrooms.
The Help leads us to discover their stories through the eyes of 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone), a spirited young woman who was herself raised by a maid. Returning to her hometown after graduation, she's disinterested in the conventional path that her mother (Allison Janney) expects her to take. Pursuing her literary ambitions, she stumbles upon the idea of interviewing her friend's housemaid, Aibileen (Viola Davis), for a book which will reveal a few controversial home truths.
Before long, Skeeter has formed an unlikely sisterhood with the longsuffering Aibileen and her outspoken friend Minny (Octavia Spencer). Against the backdrop of growing racial tensions and at great risk to themselves, the two maids slowly begin to share the injustices and indignities they have suffered over the years. The courage of this small group of women starts a movement which will change the town - and all of their lives - forever.
The film paints its characters in broad strokes - too broad, in the case of the villainous Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). But its trump card is Viola Davis, whose bruised and quietly dignified performance roots the story in something real and heartbreaking. Aibileen exudes weariness, from her hooded eyes to her shuffling walk, but she is a fighter in her own way, sustained by faith and by friendship. As the feisty Skeeter, rising star Emma Stone (Zombieland, Easy A) more than holds her own, while Octavia Spencer oozes attitude. The Help's best scenes are those where Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter are talking and laughing together, engaging in a powerful rebellion simply by doing so.
The Help reminds us that telling our stories gives us dignity,and that truth has the power to heal and reconcile. The world's most oppressed people are its most invisible and most of us, to some extent, understand the pain of suffering in silence. When we're given space to speak, we are upheld and validated as worthwhile people. When we truly listen to others, we are offering them the same gift. It's one of the ways in which Jesus showed love to the unregarded and the 'untouchable'. The gospels repeatedly see him stopping to engage with those who would normally be silenced, taking the time to empathise with their stories.
It's from this kind of empathy that real change can come - and change is still needed. It's easy for us to look back on the time portrayed in The Help, and at characters like Hilly, with a sense of superiority. But we too can be selectively deaf to the rights and the needs of others. The question we're left with, after the credits have rolled, is whether we are willing to start listening.
Sophie Lister writes for the Damaris Trust