A stirring black-empowerment tale aimed squarely at white auds, “The Help” personalizes the civil rights movement through the testimony of domestic servants working in Jackson, Miss., circa 1963. But more than that, it serves as an enlightening and deeply affecting exercise in empathy for those who’ve never considered what life must have been like for African-Americans living with inequality a full century after the Emancipation Proclamation called an end to slavery. With its Southern sass and feel-good sensitivity — and broad awareness as a New York Times bestseller — “The Help” should clean up domestically, though it may not translate well overseas.
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s unlikely chart-topper, in which a white girl who fancies herself a writer convinces more than a dozen Mississippi maids to publish their stories, the adaptation is a multiethnic ensembler with likely greater appeal among genteel white ladies than the black community it somewhat patronizingly seeks to understand.
The eminently likable Emma Stone plays the young journalist, a misfit debutante-turned-college grad named Skeeter Phelan, though the true hero is Viola Davis’ Aibileen, the African-American maid who puts her life and career on the line; in the Jim Crow South, talking out of turn could get Aibileen lynched.
The pair make compelling leads in a film packed with strong female characters. Getting to know this colorful and diverse group of ladies is chief among “The Help’s” many pleasures, as the film emphasizes hankie-tugging sisterhood over pricklier issues that continue to divide the races today. Standouts include Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), two white ladies from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Even though the actresses playing them look uncannily similar, they create radically different portraits of Southern eccentricity.
As president of the local Junior League, Hilly is the classy Marilyn to Celia’s trailer-trash Norma Jean; both women also happen to share a maid, the cantankerous and equally unforgettable Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who isn’t afraid to burn bridges in order to preserve her self-respect.
Everyone who’s anyone in Jackson — from Skeeter’s imperious mother (Allison Janney, perfectly cast) to Aibileen’s boss, Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly, a master of the insincere Southern smile-scowl) — allows Hilly to bully them around. Top of her agenda is passing a bill that would require employers to build separate outdoor bathrooms for the help. Thanks to Minny, she’ll get her just desserts, courtesy of a twist that rivals that of kindred spirit “Fried Green Tomatoes.”
In the novel, Skeeter’s anonymously published expose is simply called “Help” — a clever play on words that suggests a cry for change from segregated second-class citizens desperate for their voices to be heard. The film, adapted with the sure hand of a seasoned pro by Stockett’s longtime friend Tate Taylor (a relatively unproven director with only one previous feature to his name, 2008’s “Pretty Ugly People”), hews relatively close to its source material, running a tad on the long side in order to squeeze in most of the personality-rich book’s characters and subplots.
Still, many of these elements are paid little more than passing recognition and might have been better omitted altogether, if only to leave more room for the maids.
Though the film makes Hilly’s Home Help Sanitation Initiative (like her use of the N-word) unreasonable enough that no one would hesitate to denounce it today, the issue cuts to the heart of Stockett’s strong central theme: In their own minds, many Southern whites viewed their servants as members of the family, and yet they seldom extended them the same courtesies they would have shown to even the most unwanted relative. To underscore the point, Stockett includes Hilly’s mother, Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek), whose Alzheimer’s hasn’t advanced enough to erase the memory of her daughter’s most embarrassing secret.
In 1960s Mississippi, the only thing the white society ladies value more than discretion is gossip, and Skeeter’s book threatens to expose all their dirty laundry. Even more entertaining than the dirt is the dramatic story behind the book’s creation, intercut with such actual events as the assassination of Medgar Evers, which positions the publication of the fictitious tome as one of those inspiring small steps/giant leaps in which white readers come to recognize their fellow man.
The film itself shares that perspective, frequently privileging the maids’ point of view, to the extent that Taylor opens and closes the film with Aibileen’s testimony to Skeeter’s question: “What’s it feel like raising a white child when your own child is at home being raised by someone else?”
Like Stockett, Taylor grew up in Jackson and demonstrates a keen, wryly observant sense for the dialect and mannerisms of his hometown. Despite his limited directing experience, the helmer has firm control of the material, working with production designer Mark Ricker (“Julie & Julia”) and costume designer Sharen Davis (“Dreamgirls”) to create a robust, fully saturated snapshot of the city, from Hilly’s impeccable beehive hairdo to Aibileen’s understated-yet-proud living room.
“The Help” probably didn’t need the anemic romantic thread between Skeeter and Stuart Whitworth (Chris Lowell), though its inclusion — over the book’s explanation for what really happened to Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the Phelan family maid who lost her job after her daughter was born pale enough to pass for white — suggests where the film’s priorities lie. It’s a shame, too, that the pic leaves out the particulars of what happens to Aibileen, though the final scene — in concert with Thomas Newman’s score throughout — is irrefutably optimistic about where things are headed.