Movie Review: The Help
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
It's hard to believe that just 50 years ago, a Junior League president in Jackson, Miss., could propose a "Home Help Sanitation Initiative" that encouraged white homeowners to install separate toilets for the black help in hopes of keeping "dangerous Negro diseases" at bay.
The idea is as appalling to us now as it is to Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, the career-minded white college graduate in 1963 at the center of "The Help," the movie based on the 2009 best-seller by Jackson native Kathryn Stockett, which is being released today.
The toilet initiative put forth by know-it-all Hilly Holbrook, played masterfully by Bryce Dallas Howard, doesn't sit well with Skeeter and is part of what inspires her to write a book based on interviews with maids in Jackson.
The movie is a faithful adaptation of the hugely popular book, weaving together the stories of three women: Skeeter, who was raised by a black woman named Constantine who mysteriously "quit" while Skeeter was in college; Aibileen, a stoic, grieving mother played by Viola Davis who agrees to help Skeeter write a book about domestic help from the maids' perspective; and Minny, a strong-willed, outspoken maid played by — and whose character in the book was inspired by — Octavia Spencer, who isn't so convinced it's safe to talk so candidly to a white woman.
"The Help" gives us a glimpse at a watershed moment when the scales were finally tipping in favor of equal rights for women and minorities, but not everywhere. Skeeter, a role that will introduce Emma Stone to millions who didn't catch her in "Superbad" or "Easy A," discovers that, according to Mississippi law , interviewing these women is an offense punishable by jail and for Aibileen and Minny, possibly worse.
Medgar Evers' assassination in June 1963 is a dark turning point in the film, but it ultimately inspires even more women to tell their stories — both the good and the bad — of what it's really like working for white families.
"The Help" falls a little short of "Mad Men" in style and understated tone, but it's easier to digest because the heroines are so easy to like and the villains, which for part of the movie include Allison Janney as Skeeter's mom, so easy to hate. First-time director Tate Taylor, a longtime friend of author Stockett, optioned the rights to make the movie before the book was even published, and they teamed up to write a script that will please those who loved the book.
Sissy Spacek lends a few memorable laughs as Hilly's mom, but the real release valve to this pressure cooker of a plot is Minny, who gets the ultimate revenge on Hilly in the form of a very funny scene that involves a chocolate pie.
In many ways, the movie is even funnier than the book, thanks in large part to the performances of the half-dozen or so female lead characters, which is almost unheard of in Hollywood these days. It's a chance for "Tree of Life" star Jessica Chastain to show her goofy side as Celia Foote, a white woman who is as rejected by her peers as the help she employs. Spencer has such an animated face and delivery that she can make even something so simple as frying chicken hilarious, and Davis gives Aibileen a strength that allows her to carry her head high despite one last heart-breaking move by Hilly at the end of the film.
Howard has perhaps the toughest role, playing a woman whose unapologetic mistreatment of blacks seems so repulsive and outdated now. Even though we've come a long wa y, it's a good reminder of the risks people took to break down the racial barriers that were once so common, not just in public spaces but in our own homes.