Reliance Home Video, R599
The Help has all the hallmarks of an Oscar-winner. It actually did get Octavia Spencer the golden statue for best actress, while being nominated for the best picture award. But a film on racially determined class structures in America of the mid-60s can sound either too daunting or too syrupy (the promotional tagline 'Change begins with a whisper' on the DVD's cover doesn't help). The Help, however, confidently steps both Spike Lee-style heaviness as well Steven Spielberg-style high kitschiness to bring us a powerful, rousing movie that magically makes us think and enjoy at the same time.
Based on Kathyrn Stockett's book of the same name, the film is about a young white woman, Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone), building a friendship with two black house maids. This taboo-breaking and indeed 'illegal' friendship is built on goodness towards fellow human beings and a sense of outrage at the racist establishment in segregation-era Mississippi. Skeeter's project of writing a book that records the point of view of the maids - 'the help' - faces obstacles that, chilling now, are obvious in the period being depicted.
Octavia Spencer as one of the maids, Minny Jackson, is quite superb. Minny has a reputation as being a 'difficult' maid, getting fired regularly but being hired for her cooking skills. Spencer plays the role with humour, passion and, above all, a chutzpah that permeates the whole movie. In a scene where she confronts the woman who last fired her, the sense of joyful vengeance (revenge, in this case, is literally sweet) and guilt at conducting herself in such a way is memorable for much of the acting Spencer does with her face. Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is the other maid, who raises white children. Her narrative is more sombre, but no less deserving our attention.
The film shows an America that was racially divided by law less than 45 years ago without heaviness, telling it through the goings-on in a small town and with portraits rather than on a broad canvas. The Help is a serious treat.