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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Mississippi Churning

27th Nov 2011

The Help

Director: Tate Taylor

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer

Tate Taylor's corny but heartwarming film is adapted from Kathleen Stockett's bestseller about an early 60s Southern world where black women must work as maids, cleaning the houses, cooking the dinners and bringing up the babies of white women. The white women, meanwhile, spend their early adulthood plotting potential marriages ("Isn't that what all you girls from Old Miss major in: professional husband hunting?" says a rude young suitor in the film) – and the rest of their lives in a whirl of bridge parties and society benefits.

This is a fictional world set exactly a century down from the Civil War era of Gone With the Wind, but Southern belles from the 'better families' are still preoccupied with the all-important task of ensnaring men (and occasionally, the other all-important task of snubbing white trash). The Help has also been accused of reinforcing stereotypes by creating black characters who don't seem to have moved much distance at all from the comforting nurturers of white children that the Mammies of yore were reduced to.

Now, it's true that the stable, strong-minded black maid teaching her young white charges to trust themselves and dishing out helpful advice such as "Fryin' chicken jus' tend to make you feel better about life" is undeniably clichéd, and the film's vision of a cross-colour sisterhood in the face of bigotry may seem simplistically crowd-pleasing. There's also the fact that the black women's words must come filtered through a white protagonist: Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone), a Mississippi girl who comes back from college to her hometown determined to find a story that will turn her into a writer.

But The Help's dramatic premise – the well-intentioned white girl who wants to get the black maids of Jackson, Tennessee to describe this world from their perspective – is brought to life by some fine acting: Viola Davis as the muted, thoughtful Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as her feisty friend Minnie make the screen sparkle every time they're on, and I also thoroughly enjoyed Jessica Chastain's over-the-top performance as the desperate and confused Celia Foote (unrecognisably different from her Tree of Life avatar). The leitmotif of the film is a campaign for a separate toilet outside the house for "the help". We in India could do worse than watching a film that forces us to think about the notions of 'cleanliness' that form the core of every caste system.

 
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