Saturday, July 30, 2011

Film Review: The Help (Aug 10 in US and UK)

Viola Davis in "The Help" photo courtesy of Dreamworks ©2011

review by Michael Orton
copyright 2011 ImageProviders
All Rights Reserved

At the Sundance Film Festival this past January, a memorable appearance by Harry Belafonte offered the young filmmakers in attendance a personal understanding of his involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and of his fervent desire that above anything else, they be society's radicals (his emphasis). Citing the Works Progress Administration and the work of Dorthea Lange and Ben Shahn, he described artists as "the caretakers of truth," and perhaps even guardians of our culture and that "radical thought is the energy of the Universe."

Harry Belafonte (right) "sitting"

Belafonte told those assembled that day that he felt he had been "fortunate to interface with the harbingers of radical thinking," people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Robeson. "The power of art is not to portray life as it is, but life as it should be..." but he also warned, "To be a radical is to be an outcast. We definitely paid a price."

These themes multiply the force and effect of the Tate Taylor film version of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 debut novel, "The Help," a story set in and about Jackson, Mississippi and the Jim Crow south. With breakout performances by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis (note that several Oscar nominations are predicted, here), and with Stockett's author adequately played by ingenue Emma Stone, the film also contains a stunningly appropriate cameo by none other than Cicely Tyson herself. When Ms. Tyson takes the screen, one feels as though history has indeed come alive. Allison Janney offers a welcome presence as part of Jackson Mississippi's plantation establishment and Sissy Spacek's unabashed comic relief allows the overarching social tension to be almost welcome.

(l to r) Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek and Octavia Spencer in "The Help"

America in the sixties included television's "Andy Griffith Show" for those privileged enough to have "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It to Beaver" memories of their childhood. Memorable for some but not for all during that convulsive time of our nation's history. Ironically, one of the most caustic characters in the story is very well delivered by Bryce Dallas Howard a generation after her father (director Ron Howard) was Andy Griffiths' cherubic "Opie" in the Mayberry series of the sixties. 

In "The Help," white hot performances including a revelatory soliloquy, delivered with piercing effect by Ms. Davis, help us truly understand that those famous years were not idyllic for everyone who lived through them. This is the transcendent effect of "The Help," and one that will definitely be recognized during Oscar's upcoming "For Your Consideration" season beginning in just six months. (Perhaps it is significant to note here that the nation's general election will occur only eight months after the Oscars are awarded this coming March).

And after viewing and feeling this story, which forcefully reminds us of how far we've come as a nation, one might conclude that as strenuous and painful as it was, the effort of Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King and those other harbingers of radical thinking, was just The Help we needed.

"The Help" a DreamWorks release of a Reliance Big Entertainment feature

from the novel by Kathryn Stockett
screenplay by Tate Taylor
directed by Tate Taylor

The film is better than this trailer portrays it to be...