If The Blind Side was the sleeper hit of 2009, Hollywood buzz is already giving that title this year to another Southern-style feel-good drama, The Help. Based on a book initially rejected by 60 literary agents, the film was made on a relatively modest budget of $25 million and boasts none of the A-list names one would expect given its success. Yet to date it has grossed more than $148 million and amassed the longest run of days at the top of the box office since The Sixth Sense in 1999.
Though race plays a factor in both The Blind Side and The Help and feisty female leads with honey-dripping drawls feature equally heavily, the comparisons being drawn between the two films are a bit off-base. Whereas The Blind Side was a story about compassion and the fruit it bears, The Help is a story about justice and the courage it sometimes takes to pursue it. (I should also note that The Helpis a bit saltier than The Blind Side with language and a certain, um, off-putting gastronomical incident that makes its PG-13 rating well-deserved.)
When Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson, Miss., from college she's looking for a good story to tell, a story that will make her a real writer and win her a place in big city publishing. After watching her friend's black maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis) suffer humiliation and degradation at the hands of her employer, she has her story: What is life like for the black women who raise and love white women's babies in the 1960s segregated South? What, in other words, is life like for the help?
With Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. speaking out on the television and a New York editor pushing her to nail down an interview before this "civil rights trend passes," Skeeter approaches Aibileen and asks her to share her experiences. Understandably fearful of what it would mean for her livelihood, Aibileen initially rejects the request, and one of the loveliest things about the movie is that it isn't anger or a desire for retribution that finally motivates her to speak out; it is a sense of responsibility. A message she hears in church about the courage it took Moses to confront Pharaoh convinces her that, in the middle of violence, racism, and unrest, she is being called on to speak the truth to those who would hear it. "What changed your mind," Skeeter asks her. "God," says Aibileen, adding after a comic pause, "and Hilly Holbrook" (Bryce Dallas Howard).
As the upwardly mobile mean girl of the county, Hilly provides the weakest link in the film. Until the last few minutes, all we get from her is a one-note bouffant bogeyman. She acts as a convenient lightning rod on which to focus all our outrage, but the triumph that the help eventually has over her feels, while funny, somewhat cheap. A brief moment near the end where Aibileen asks Hilly if she isn't tired from being so full of hate and spitefulness gives us a glimpse at what might have been-a villain who would have been all the more affecting for being more fully realized.
That said, it's impossible not to take a little wicked delight in the comeuppance that Howard's character eventually receives, and even the most soft-hearted Christian grandmother will likely find herself howling in laughter as the character earns the moniker "two-slice Hilly."
Even if The Help doesn't possess the spiritual and emotional depth that won Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for The Blind Side, it resonates with our desire to see wrongs set right at a time when so many white Americans were shamefully working against liberty and justice. And with Viola Davis, Emma Stone, and a particularly hilarious Sissy Spacek lighting up the cast, one more thing it likely will share with The Blind Side-some serious acting nominations come Oscar time.
Listen to Megan Bashman discuss The Help on The World and Everything in It.