‘The Help’: Elegant story of wanting to be equal

In this week's At the Movies, re­view­er Seni­tra Hor­brook ex­am­ines the pop­u­lar film about race re­la­tions in the South dur­ing the 1960s.

“THE HELP” 946_D_08558R In Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi in 1963, (left to right) Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), Min­nie Jack­son (Octavia Spen­cer) and Aibileen Clark (Vi­ola Dav­is) to­geth­er take a risk that could have pro­found con­sequences for them all in Dream­Works Pic­tures’ drama, “The Help”, based on the New York Times best-selling nov­el by Kath­ryn Stock­ett. Ph: Dale Robin­ette ©Dream­Works II Dis­tri­bu­tion Co., LLC.  All Rights Re­served.

There is an old say­ing about re­venge be­ing a dish best served cold. That couldn’t be more true (and fun­ni­er) than when one of the maids in The Help takes the state­ment quite lit­er­ally.

The pie scene (you’ll know it when you see it) is one of the best and most mem­or­able mo­ments in a film that oth­er­wise left me feel­ing some­what sad. The scene is milked as much as pos­sible for laughs, and the few mo­ments of light­hearted­ness were wel­come in the mostly ser­i­ous film.

Based on the 2009 best-selling nov­el by Kath­ryn Stock­ett, The Help is a heart-tug­ging, watered-down pic­ture of 1960s race re­la­tions in the South. Writer/dir­ect­or Tate Taylor is a close friend of Stock­ett’s so it is safe to as­sume that the movie stayed fairly close to the source ma­ter­i­al.

It doesn’t get much more South­ern than Jack­son, Miss., where the film is set. The South­ern ste­reo­types are in full force, fea­tur­ing everything from fried chick­en to the up­per-class white fam­il­ies with black maids. And those maids are the fo­cus of the film.

They are the wo­men who cook, clean and ba­sic­ally raise their em­ploy­ers’ chil­dren, but heav­en for­bid one of them use the same toi­let or piece of sil­ver­ware. Jim Crow laws still rule the land, and those ac­tions are grounds for fir­ing or worse.

Fresh from col­lege, as­pir­ing writer Eu­genia “Skeeter” Phlalen (Emma Stone) sees the iniquit­ies between the black maids and the white fam­il­ies and de­cides to in­ter­view them for an an­onym­ous tell-all book about their ex­per­i­ences.

Ini­tially, the only maid on board is Aibileen Clark (Vi­ola Dav­is), who works for one of Skeeter’s good friends. The oth­ers are afraid to go against the es­tab­lish­ment. Even­tu­ally Minny Jack­son (Octavia Spen­cer), the maid with the smart mouth that gets her in­to trouble more of­ten than not, de­cides to tell her story as well. It takes a tragedy to get many more Jack­son-area maids in­volved.

Aibileen’s strength is ad­mir­able (her life out­side of work cer­tainly isn’t a cake­walk), as is Minny’s (even though she’s mostly played for com­ic re­lief). Dav­is and Spen­cer are cer­tainly the standouts in the cast; they play their char­ac­ters with im­mense be­lievab­il­ity.

The res­id­ent vil­lain in the tale is Hilly Hol­brook (played ex­quis­itely by Bryce Dal­las Howard), Minny’s em­ploy­er at one point. Hilly’s evil deeds in­clude hav­ing a new toi­let room built out­side for her maid to use un­der the guise of “sep­ar­ate but equal.”

I didn’t love Emma Stone in the movie; I think she’s bet­ter in more play­ful roles like Easy A and Crazy, Stu­pid, Love, but I liked that her role was more of the fa­cil­it­at­or rather than the sa­vior.

My fa­vor­ite char­ac­ter was Celia Foote (Jes­sica Chas­tain). Vil­i­fied by Hilly and her troupe for be­ing “white trash,” a closer look at Celia showed a kind-hearted yet mis­un­der­stood wo­man.

The Help is de­signed to be a feel-good movie. Most of the tar­get audi­ence will see (or want to see) them­selves in Skeeter, while des­pising the evil that Hilly rep­res­ents. Still, it’s a sad re­mind­er of how things used to be in Amer­ica.

Race re­la­tions are a di­vis­ive sub­ject, and movies that deal with the is­sue are of­ten con­tro­ver­sial. The Help is sure to have people talk­ing — and that’s prob­ably not a bad a thing. ••

Movie Grade: B

You can reach at shorbrook@bsmphilly.com.

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