10 years ago I visited Mississippi on a press trip. In between touring the gorgeous ante-bellum homes, marvelling at the magnolia trees, basking on the golden beaches and enjoying mint juleps and fried green tomatoes, we experienced first-hand the uglier side of the state: racism.
Racism – overt, cruel – is one of the central themes of new movie The Help. Unlike so many of you, I hadn’t read the book, so I was expecting a touching, and funny tale. It is touching, of course, and at times very funny – especially the scene where a special kind of sweet revenge pie is served. But it isn’t rose-tinted. It’s deeply affecting, with important lessons for anyone hazy about the South’s shameful past.
The story focuses on two maids, Aibileen and Minny (the outstanding Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer), who are struggling with the biogtry and spite of their horrible employers. It’s the 60s, and while the civil rights movement is beginning to make headway elsewhere, in Jackson Mississippi, black people are not even allowed to use the same toilet as whites.
Aibileen and Minny’s worlds start to change when they are encouraged by aspiring writer Skeeter (Emma Stone) to tell their stories. Gradually, we learn more about what it’s really like to be ‘the Help’.
All the acting is excellent, and perfectly pitched. Ultimately, The Help is a tale of female friendship and bonding, courage, and testimony to the extraordinary power of the human spirit when faced with the most appalling of circumstances. I cried pretty much 20 minutes in and didn’t stop until the end credits, but that’s not because it’s schmaltzy – far from it. The strength of the performances, the direction and the script make it my must-see movie of 2011. 5 stars.