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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘The Help’ a Powerful Reminder of How Far We’ve Come

Tate Taylor uses his cinematic excellence to span white and black America in the segregated South

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman |

4 Stars — Inspiring

For anyone who lived through the turbulent racial segregation of the mid-20th century, The Help will be a haunting reminder of how far we have come as a nation. Kathryn Stockett’s engagingly written book has taken on a life of its own in this film that is sure to be a classic.

Set in Jackson, Miss., in the pre-“I Have a Dream” days of the early 1960s, we are witness to the unjust differences between white and black America. This is a time when white society, especially (but not only) in the South, lived as if black Americans were a servant class existing to meet their social and cultural needs. The Help is a poignant glimpse into the demeaning daily experience that was often the only employment option for women of color.

It is true that there were many opportunities in some parts of the country for black men and women in those days, but in the South the emotional, physical and legal uncertainty for anyone not a part of white society was a frightening experience. It’s hard to imagine that in those days no jury ever convicted a white man for murdering a black man in many parts of the South or that a black man could be thrown in jail for just smiling at a white woman.

The Help focuses on the domestic servanthood of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and her friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), each of whom had to swallow their pride in order to keep their family fed.

Tate Taylor’s excellent imagery coupled with this great script gives us a remarkably accurate portrait of life in the South, due in no small part to the fact that both he and the author grew up in Jackson and were childhood friends.

The counterpoint in the story is Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has returned from college to work at the local newspaper and has the responsibility for writing about “tips from the kitchen.” Having grown up with “the help” in her own kitchen, she turns to the only women she knows who have a clue about how a kitchen runs. What she discovers is a world of hurt that is exacerbated by the fact that her own family’s nanny is gone when she returns to Jackson but her mother has hidden the reasons from her.

In a sobering and yet sometimes hilarious way, The Help takes us through Skeeter’s decision to write a book about “the help” that she has met along the way, and through the often life-threatening choices that “the help” have to make in order to talk to her. What if they are discovered? They could not only lose their jobs but also lose their lives. Change, unfortunately, rarely comes without sacrifice.

Although The Help doesn’t touch on the impact of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the story does touch on the murder of Medgar Evers, one of the touchstones of the civil rights movement. We are also reminded that the driving force for change was centered in the African-American Christian churches. It is the encouragement and support of the black church family that holds the hands of Aibileen and Minny as they courageously choose to take great risk to bring out the truth.

While we all know that sacrifice is a fundamental part of change, The Help reminds us that the call for sacrifice often comes to all of us at times when we least expect it. In the end, though, it is the most powerful catalyst for compassion the world has ever known. This is a powerful story that should be seen by young and old to build our confidence in trusting in the truth, even if it comes with a personal cost.


» The atrocious decision to create a “separate but equal” society was expressed by bathrooms placed outside for the black maids to use. Although now illegal, what do you see continuing in society that creates not only division but disrespect? What are you doing to change that?

» The celebration of the church at the courage of Abileen and Minny reveals the power of faith to bring about change. How has the church brought about change in your life?

» One of the deep messages of the film is that it was the black maids who loved and raised the white children. But the social pressure to treat these beloved mother-substitutes as lesser human was so strong that these young women would grow into adults and take on the prejudice of society rather than reflect the love in their hearts. Why do you think this occurred?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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