Women unite when a black maid (Viola Davis) tells her story to a young, white journalist (Emma Stone) in The Help, a drama set in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name, Tate Taylor’s film is made vivid by an impressive, diverse female ensemble cast.The Help is now playing at Bow Tie Palace 17 Theaters, Hartford, CT.
The Help looks selectively at the segregation era in the Deep South, stepping gingerly around the land mines of racial hatred and violence. While wife beating is mentioned, and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers is reported on television, this film is about women: boss ladies and maids, saints and sinners, competitors and collaborators. Among them are quiet leaders.
Oscar-worthy performances abound. These movie legends and young talents clearly cared about the project and shared a rapport that is evident on-screen. Taylor, who adapted the screenplay, employs a lively pace and an upbeat tone even as anger ferments. He takes a big risk by using humor to upend fear and separation.
The maids earn 95 cents per hour with no Social Security benefits. The boss ladies live in beautiful mansions, play cards and gossip as the help raise their children and do the housework.
Aibileen Clark (Davis) first agrees to help Skeeter Phelan (Stone) with her housekeeping column for the Jackson Journal. When Skeeter tells her she’s writing a book from the perspective of black women, Aibileen is speechless. Stone (Easy A) is outstanding as an earnest young reporter who remains true to herself. Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s anxious mother. Mary Steenburgen plays a profit-minded publisher.
Aibileen’s wisdom has been honed by indignity and tragedy. A writer at heart, she journals every night. Skeeter travels secretly to Aibileen’s kitchen to interview her for the controversial book. Aibileen can barely speak about her own son, who died after he was denied prompt medical attention following a work accident.
Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Doubt, Davis captures the soul of understatement. Aibileen is stoic and polite, a churchgoer who genuinely lives by Christian principles. Her best friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) speaks out loudly. “We livin’ in hell,” she tells Skeeter. “Trapped.” Spencer delivers a breakout performance.
Minny’s boss Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, bracing and relentless here) is crusading for a Home Health Sanitation Initiative. Blacks are ordered to use separate, outdoor bathrooms where they work. When Minny dares break the rule out of necessity, she’s promptly fired. She has no choice but to work for the town’s social outcast Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, marvelously batty in this role). Chastain and Spencer forge a fascinating dynamic of respect and momentary equality. Sissy Spacek plays Miss Hilly’s senile, defiant mother. Cicely Tyson is regal as Skeeter’s mammy Constantine.
There’s a “Real Housewives of Jackson” feel to The Help that’s soon transcended. Aibileen’s voice is central. “No one ever asked me what it feeled like to be me. Once I told the truth about that I felt free.” When Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) scolds her daughter harshly, Aibileen has the girl repeat a positive message that just might sustain her: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
“I know those women,” Viola Davis told ComingSoon.net. “Those women are very specific in my history. My aunt Joyce, my mom May Alice, my grandmother . . . . I didn’t even have to search. I could just have emotional recall.”
The Help ends on several feel-good notes. When a crisis rocks the community, a host of women step forward to share their stories. This is the film’s transformative moment. Social change begins where it always must: within each of us.
If you like The Help, you might enjoy: Precious; The Blind Side.
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The Help 2011 / PG-13 / 2 hours, 17 min
Cast Overview: Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Chris Lowell, Sissy Spacek, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Aunjanue Ellis, Mary Steenburgen, Ahna O’Reilly, Eleanor Henry, Emma Henry
Director: Tate Taylor
Genre: Drama, Period Piece