Who says Hollywood can’t make good movies out of good books? “The Help” is the sort of movie that makes you feel like you’ve seen a winner in spite of the fact, and maybe because, it’s made you mad. The still-incendiary topic of racism is tackled with little sugar-coating in this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller.
The very popular Emma Stone plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent college graduate who’s returned to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi in sixties. Skeeter aspires to be a writer, and gets an all-but unpaid job writing a housecleaning column at the local paper. She is soon struck by the ironies and injustices of the lives of the black maids who work for her neighbors, who are openly treated as inferior, even subhuman by some of their white employers, yet largely raise their children.
Skeeter sets out to write a book on the subject, and begins to interview some of the local maids, who are at first reluctant to talk, but begin to embrace the project as the civil rights movement picks up steam. Civil rights activist Medger Evers was murdered in Jackson in the summer of 1963, an event that galvanizes many of the characters in the movie as it did in real life.
Her book becomes the collaboration of a new sisterhood. Skeeter is not the only point-of-view character in this movie. Two of the maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), are the first two to cooperate with Skeeter, and their stories are interwoven almost seamlessly with hers.
“The Help” is an actress’ showcase. The three leads, playing sympathetic characters, all turn in strong, commanding performances. Viola Davis is only going to add to a fast-growing reputation with her profound portrayal of Aibeleen, tenderly raising the daughter of her white employer while having no time for her own life. Octavia Spencer’s wide-eyed outrage is sincere and affecting. Not to be overlooked is Bryce Dallas Howard, fearless in the absolutely thankless role of Hilly, an unrepentantly toxic racist who, like most genuinely evil villains, thinks she’s a good person. And then there’s Emma Stone. It’s becoming hard to think of a role within a reasonable age range she can’t play.
“The Help” unflinchingly depicts open racism and some lines of dialogue may draw gasps from modern audiences. This was a time when the most vicious and venal bigotry imaginable was actually the law, and people who thought themselves decent also thought this was how things should be.
If the movie’s going to get criticized for anything, it’s going to be in the form of objections to needing a white protagonist to tell a black story. That criticism may not be fair here. Skeeter’s viewpoint—a young, white woman from a relatively privileged background, finding the racism of her own peers increasingly less tolerable—is a part of the story.
Tate Taylor, a close friend of Kathryn Stockett’s, wrote and directed this movie, with no intention of trying to improve upon his friend’s novel. “The Help” isn’t quite approached reverently, but certainly appreciatively. This is no mean feat. The book juggles three narrative points of view, each with colloquial dialogue. As a director, Taylor, with next to no previous credits helming, does a remarkably assured, confident job here. This modestly-budgeted picture is more than capably put together, often lushly mounted and beautifully photographed.
“The Help” is not the first period piece shot by veteran cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, whose long resumé includes Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club,” Barry Levinson’s “Young Sherlock Holmes,” as well as Chris Columbus’ contemporary fantasy “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” (Columbus was a producer on “The Help.”)
Goldblatt’s luminous, golden photography not only makes the movie gorgeous to look at, but also provides a striking dramatic counterpoint to the repulsive racism which rears its head like a persistent snake throughout the story. You expect sentimentality from the glowing images and more often than not, don’t get it.
The wonderful Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson and Mary Steenburgen are all in the movie as well. There are also men in the movie—Mike Vogel even manages to play a likeable character. But in this one it’s going to be the women you remember.
“The Help” is now playing at theaters across the Capital District, including the Bow Tie Movieland 6 in Schenectady, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Regal Cinemas Latham Circle Mall 10, the Spectrum 8 Theatres in Albany, the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8 and the Regal Cinemas Wilton Mall 8.