Movies: "The Help" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "The Help"
Movies: "The Help"

 

It was a different world not so long ago.  

 

Privileged white southern women would graduate from college, get married early and inherit the African-American maids (who had raised them) to work in their homes and raise the next generation of privileged children.  In some instances, a maid was passed on to a daughter by a parent’s inheritance, like chattel.  The maids were privy to everything that went on in their white households, but were forbidden from even using the bathroom in the homes they cleaned every day.

 

This cruelly segregated world is painstakingly brought back to screen life in “The Help,” written and directed by Tate Taylor and based on the hugely best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.  The book was her first novel, and Taylor is almost as new to his craft:  an actor who last appeared in the terrific “Winter’s Bone,”  he has written and directed only one other feature film, “Pretty Ugly People” in 2008.  Did you see that one?  Me neither.

 

So here we are in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, with aspiring writer “Skeeter” Phelan (the ubiquitous Emma Stone, just seen in “Crazy, Stupid Love.” and “Friends with Benefits”) fresh out of Ole Miss and landing her first job as a housekeeping columnist for the local paper.  (Her editor is the irrepressible Leslie Jordan, still missed as the frying-pan murderer on “Boston Legal.”)

 

When Skeeter starts soliciting housekeeping tips from her old school chum’s maid, Aibeleen (the wonderful Viola Davis of “Eat, Pray Love”), it begins to dawn on her that there is an untold story waiting for her among the black housekeepers she herself grew up with.  Aibeleen enlists the help of another maid, Missy (Octavia Spencer), and the two begin unburdening themselves to the writer.  Other maids will soon join in.

 

The project is not without danger.  One key scene in the movie centers around the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, in which Aibeleen suddenly comes to realize the mortal peril Skeeter’s book could could pose for her and her family.    But despite the dark undertones, there is plenty of humor here as well, including a wonderful moment in which Skeeter succeeds in having every unwanted toilet in town dumped on her former friend’s front yard.  And, since this is a heart-warming Hollywood movie after all (with some funding from an Abu Dhabi!), the bittersweet ending leaves us with hope for the future of the black and white women at the center of its story.

 

While the two black leads dominate the movie, it also rests on strong performances by several noteworthy supporting roles, including Allison Janney as Skeeter’s strong-willed mother, Sissy Spacek as a dotty but clear-sighted dowager, the great Cicely Tyson back on screen as Skeeter’s former maid, Mary Steenburgen as Skeeter’s acerbic New York publisher and Nelsan Ellis as a sympathetic counterman at the local lunch counter.  

 

The southern belles whose domestic lives Skeeter will uncover are headed by the sugar-coated scorpion Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (Gwen Stacy in “Spider-Man 3”), whose petty villainy reflects in small part the larger evil of the segregationist South.

 

Credit should also go to production designer Mark Ricker and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (who has shot everything from “Lethal Weapon” to “Julie & Julia”), for bringing to life the 1960s world of genteel southern mansions to the shotgun shacks of the help.

 

“The Help” is rated PG-13 for its adult subject matter, but there is no on-screen sex or violence.  I recommend it for anyone who wants to see a soft-focus look at the social problems of our ugly, recent history -- and that includes older children.

 

I give it a B.

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