Budding journalist stirs up her hometown writing about
white socialites and their black maids
August 24, 2011
Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis & Bryce Dallas Howard
Directed by Tate Taylor
137 minutes, rated PG-13
A strong female cast anchors the drama, the laughter and the tears of “The Help,” about the intertwined lives of white and black Southern women in early days of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The best-selling 2009 book on which the movie was based, by Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett, created a buzz of controversy with its racially charged story of a fictionalized group of well-to-do Southern socialities and the black maids who do their cooking, clean their homes and raise their babies.
Director Tate Taylor (another native Southerner) gets the details right in the look and feel of the times, due in no small part to the movie’s on-location filming in and around Jackson, Miss., where Stockett’s story was based--and where both the writer and the director grew up. It’s obvious this story springs from a place, geographically as well as emotionally, that the people telling it know well.
The plot revolves Skeeter (Emma Watson), an aspiring journalist back home after college graduation, who wants to interview two local black maids, Abilene (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer), about what it’s like to be “the help” for the town’s well-heeled white women.
As you might expect, Skeeter’s project stirs things up on both side of the town’s well-defined racial dividing line.
Viola Davis gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the long-suffering Abilene, but the rest of the cast is also uniformly sturdy. Bryce Dallas Howard sizzles in every scene in which she appears as Skeeter’s childhood friend, Hilly, who never realizes the toxicity of her deeply engrained racism.
Allison Janney is superb as Skeeter’s cancer-afflicted mother, Charlotte, a regal daughter of the South caught between the region’s culture and the nation’s civil-rights cause for which her daughter’s writing will become an agent of change. Sissy Spacek has a feisty turn as a go-get-’em grandma.
But the movie’s clear audience favorite is Octavia Spencer. As the culinarily gifted Minnie, she gets plenty of zinger lines and launches the movie’s pivotal get-even gag involving a chocolate pie with a disgustingly appropriate surprise ingredient.
Millions of readers who lapped up--and loved--the book may nitpick about what the movie leaves out, tweaks or shortchanges, but it’s hard to believe they’ll depart disappointed. “The Help” is a robust piece of storytelling, an emotional fountain of fiercely good, fem-centric ensemble acting, and a refreshing change of pace from the summer run of raunchy romantic comedies and bulked-up superheroes.
For a lot of viewers, I suspect, the only “help” they’ll want as the credits roll is for someone to hand them a hankie before the lights come up.
--Neil Pond, American Profile