"The Help", the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's wildly popular novel about domestic race relations in the 1960's Deep South, is a beautifully acted ensemble dramedy that strikes a nerve with its infectious charm, its emotive characters and its ability to examine open wounds in American sociological history from a fresh perspective.
The time is 1963 and the place is Jackson, Mississippi. On one side of the tracks are the white plantation-princesses led by Queen-Bee socialite Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) -- a clique of bouncy-haired belles who idly pass the time playing bridge and guzzling sweet tea. The film scrupulously recreates their historical snapshot of Americana in the shiny Caddies they drive or the big, southern-cliche mansions they inhabit -- former-plantations to be sure with wrap around porches and massive acreage of crab grass. The last remnants of white-southern aristocracy, the great-granddaughters of slave owners, these are women brought up on entitlement and shit-don't-stink arrogance. Hilly, in the flesh, represents everything reactionary and -- dare I say -- monstrous about a milieu bred to believe in racial separatism. (She even builds an outhouse so her black housemaids can't use the same toilet she does.)
Seething behind the pretty pastels of Hilly's inner-circle are "the help". Abilene (Viola Davis), who narrates, and Minny (Octavia Spencer) take the bus everyday from their rundown, sharecropper's lodgings to the rich, white part of town so they can cook the white people's food and raise their children, all the while quietly taking their abuse. The situation, it seems, is that paid slaves are still beasts of burden for the sake of caucasian-southern prosperity -- one hundred years after slavery was officially abolished, no less. Minny's specialty is cooking. Abilene's is "raising babies" and she becomes surrogate mother to the white brats she dutifully rears. "You're my real mama, Abi," whispers the blonde toddler Abilene dotes over daily. Ironically, as she notes at one point, the children often grow up to be like their mothers and inbred racial hatred usurps kindness and caring for another generation.
What we have here is a cycle of African American subservience and white privilege dating all the way back to the Diaspora, perpetuated by the Civil War resentful southern states. But what's brilliant about "The Help" is that its dissection of this culture is neither (ahem) black and white nor is it a reveling in misery or inequality. 1963 is the beginning of a turning point in America. Dr. King is knocking at the door and the walls are about to come down. The counterculture -- and its advocating of liberalism and reform -- is on the horizon. The film has the profundity to emphasize the fact that white dominance is doomed and Hilly's a traditionalist gasping for a way-of-life that's disintegrating. Yet, it's the help who are most viscously caught in the cycle -- for Abilene, waiting on whites is all she knows, it's what her mother and grandmother did before her. What gives the film a charge of dramatic empowerment is that it is Abilene who, when the time comes, will have to find the courage to take those first steps out the door and toward "a new birth of freedom."
"The Help" (directed by Tate Taylor) also understands that to forget past atrocities is nearly as big a crime as committing them. And that's why Skeeter Phelum (Emma Stone), a recent Ol' Miss grad with more on her mind than baby making and bridge, elects to write a book chronicling the stories of the help. Her first subjects are Abilene and Minny. Of course -- since the film revolves in part around the murder of activist Megbert Evers -- this is precarious as blacks that speak out against whites often meet grisly ends. So the trio converses in secret and Skeeter's findings are eventually published anonymously. The untold stories make a splash all over Jackson, especially with the incorrigible Hilly.
But "The Help" is too smart to assume that racial intolerance was the only kind perpetrated in that time and place. Jessica Chastain ("The Tree of Life") plays Celia Foote, an achingly sweet white-trash ditz who married rich only to be ostracized by Hilly's popular table of sheep-like snobs. And Skeeter -- often remembering her upbringing under the guidance of a black housemaid named Constantin -- feels the constant sting of being an intellectual whilst the rest of her type are getting married and popping out children at a record rate. (Feminist undertones, I think so). Astutely, the whites in "The Help" are not completely vilified.
Neither are the black protagonists completely canonized: Minny's a mischievous and vindictive character whose scatological revenge on her ex-employer, Hilly, is revolting and odious (not to mention hysterical). Spencer plays her with fiendish spice and a whip-smart tongue. And Davis, in a performance of quiet heartbreak, makes Abilene neither angelic nor cowardly, but calm as only a cover-up for internal anguish. She's soul-sick and weary, but not lost, only looking for a new life purpose. Davis's portrayal is spot on.
But all the actresses in "The Help" give well-toned and unique performances: Howard, as Hilly, makes a truly repugnant villainess; and Sissy Spacek is uproarious as her old coot mother. Stone gets to be her usual charmer as well as display some of the dramatic chops that have been missing from her repertoire. And Chastain (the new Amy Adams perhaps) proves her versatility in a turn making pure mania and cluelessness remarkably fetching.
Of course, despite its many successes, "The Help" has some foibles. The transition from page to screen has left obvious flab in the narrative (common with adaptations). And the film's tendency towards Sirk-ian melodrama isn't entirely advantageous. It has the inclination to water down the film's often stirring subject matter. Still, in the end what shines through "The Help" more than anything is the message that courage is ameliorating, not only in the grand (Parks or MLK) but even in the small: a demure housemaid could do her part in the fight for equality simply by sitting down and, for the very first time, telling her story. And it took incredible courage to do so.