“The Help” is about a young white woman in segregated Mississippi who seeks to give a voice to the black maids and nannies by gathering and publishing their personal stories. You cringe just thinking about it, don’t you? Movies like this are usually sanctimonious and preachy, or else embarrassing because they focus on saintly white characters who swoop in and save those poor Negroes.
But lo and behold, “The Help” gets it right. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel (which I haven’t read) and adapted and directed by the author’s longtime friend Tate Taylor, the film presents the thorny, emotionally charged material with respect and abundant good humor. Though a white woman is the catalyst, the film belongs entirely to the complex and fully formed black characters. Movies about Southern racism in the 1960s are often so black-and-white (pardon the expression) that they become cartoonish, making the awful realities of the era seem unrealistic. But “The Help” feels authentic, with people talking and behaving in the nuanced manner of real people rather than stereotypes. We get a strong sense of what Jackson, Mississippi, was probably really like in 1963 — the bad, the good, and the in-between.
This is a world in which any self-respecting white family with even a modest income employs black women as domestic help. They cook, clean, and essentially raise their employers’ children, then go home at the end of the day to their own families on the other side of the tracks. One such maid is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a luminous woman of about 50 who works for the Leefolt family. She genuinely loves the chubby little Leefolt daughter she’s currently raising, just as she has loved all the other children in her care. The girl’s mother, Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), is a hands-off kind of parent, which is typical of this society. She considers Aibileen and all other blacks to be inferior, of course, but harbors no particular ill will or distrust.
Upon graduating from Ole Miss, one Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (the plucky Emma Stone) returns to Jackson to look for work and tend to her ailing mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney). Skeeter is different from the other women her age in that she’s not single-mindedly seeking a husband, nor does she accept without question what she’s been taught about black folks. Skeeter was raised by a maid (played by Cicely Tyson), just like all the other Junior League girls, but she’s come away from the experience with more insight than her contemporaries.
A would-be writer, Skeeter gets the idea to interview Aibileen and the other maids of Jackson, figuring this would make for an eye-opening story. No one has presented their point of view before! Turns out there’s a reason: any maid who talked frankly about her employers in public would be fired lickety-split, then bad-mouthed until she couldn’t find work anywhere else in town. Nonetheless, circumstances eventually embolden Aibileen enough to take the risk.
If Aibileen is the strong, dignified black woman, her best friend and fellow maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) is the loose cannon. Minny, legendary for her cooking, has worked for senile old Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) for decades, and now works for her daughter, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s the most stone-cold racist b-word in town. While most of her fellow maids have suppressed their indignation in order to make a living, Minny has grown bitter and resentful. It’s only a matter of time before she’s fired.
Adding more flavor to the story is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a bubbly Southern belle who is an outcast from polite society and has, for some reason, none of the attitudes toward “the help” that she’s supposed to have. Newly married but woefully inadequate in the kitchen, she needs a maid who can help out in that department.
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer give some of the best performances of the year, imbuing their characters with small touches — a sigh here, a raised eyebrow there — that make them feel lived-in and real. Aibileen is wise but fallible; Minny is angry but good-hearted. They have their functions in the plot, of course, but they don’t seem to exist for the sole purpose of performing those functions. (The same cannot be said for Hilly, the film’s lone one-dimensional villain, though even she is played with startling iciness by Bryce Dallas Howard.) Stone, Janney, and especially Chastain turn potentially patronizing characters into lively and memorable ones.
Not everything works perfectly. The inclusion of a potential love interest for Skeeter adds nothing to the story, and Mary Steenburgen’s version of a New York publisher — only seen talking on the telephone, usually barking orders — feels like it belongs in another movie entirely. You could also make the argument, though I might disagree with you, that the film resorts to some gimmickry to earn cheap applause in a couple instances.
What is surprising is that it doesn’t do that sort of thing constantly, as many lesser films have. When the tears come (and believe me, they do), they are sweet and well-earned, not jerked out of you. This isn’t a movie that you watch just because it’s good for you (though it is good for you). You watch it because it’s also a crowd-pleasing, Friday-night-at-the-movies experience, a great mix of noble intentions and popular entertainment.
B+ (2 hrs., 17 min.; )