By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
It’s about time I got to review something like Tate Taylor’s “The Help,” a vital work with a beginning, middle, end and something important to say. Inundated by the summer of FX, where every moment of almost every movie has attempted to emulate the last two minutes of a 4th of July fireworks extravaganza, I was trapped inside a pinball machine.
But ah, relief has sprung. It’s like finally being in the company of adults after far too much time among the whims and vagaries of adolescence. This fine film adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel of the same title, about race relations in the South, circa the early ‘60’s, proves they can still make ‘em liked they used to, on occasion.
Astute car-casting sets the sociology and time as pretty Skeeter (Emma Stone), just graduated from Ole Miss, drives her blue Cadillac convertible to the Jackson Journal in search of a career. No future mint julep drinking matron here…no ma’am. She unfurls a letter of possible employment at a N.Y.C. publishing house, if she can “gain experience.”
A pixyish sort, the editor is swayed by her moxie. And as it just so happens, he needs a new household hints columnist. While Skeeter doesn’t know a thing about keeping house, they both agree that one has to start a life of belles-lettres somewhere. The irony is that, in a manner of speaking, she is about to become an expert on domestic affairs.
Domestic as in maid, that is…specifically, the African-American women who have cooked, cleaned and essentially raised the children of Jackson, Mississippi’s white families, uninterruptedly, since the slave days. It starts off rather naively. Skeeter just had a few questions.
But domestic problem is soon defined in its national sense when, in hoping that Viola Davis’s superbly played maid, Aibileen, might help her with tips about getting stains out of garments and the such, it opens a can of worms which leads to shocking insights. Filmmaker Taylor astutely weaves a superbly tangled web of black and white stories.
It also gets personal. When she learns that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the housekeeper who raised her, has unexplainably left the family’s employment, Skeeter takes note of a syndrome. The black help showers its affection on the white kids who, with few exceptions, grow up to be just as prejudiced as their parents. Well, by gum, not Skeeter.
Further inspired by the cosmopolitan editor, Miss Stein (Mary Steenburgen), in the Big Apple., Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, smartly exacted by Emma Stone, asks Aibileen to help her really clean house, to tell what it’s like to be on her end of Jim Crowism. And just in case that’s not risky enough, could she get her fellow maids to contribute their stories?
Diametrically opposed to the epiphany Skeeter secretly makes her cause celebre is Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook, self-appointed leader of those former debs who now embrace the status quo. Hilly won’t be happy until every lily white home has separate toilet facilities for its black servants. Besides, she justifies, it’ll add value to your house.
Supplying tension and heart-rending emotion, the script tells a parallel tale from the help’s perspective. While devoted to the little charges who too rarely receive nurturing from their parents, Aibileen knows what punishment awaits if it’s found she’s sharing confidences. Colleague Minny Jackson’s (Octavia Spencer) plight is just as trenchant.
There was a time Minny’s legendary fried chicken protected her from the more severe wiles of the system. But when she suffers the brunt of scapegoatism employers routinely used to deflect blame from their own ghastly behavior, she also joins the underground confederacy supplying Skeeter info for a tell-all book. She has plenty to tell, too.
Offering a seriocomic angle from which to view the desperate manner employed by the landed gentry to preserve its socioeconomic primacy, Jessica Chastain’s Celia Foote is the only gal unafraid to hire the ostracized Minny. Unaccepted as well “Because,” as Minny bluntly puts it, “you white trash,” her sexy innocence is humorously touching.
Of lesser importance, meant to underline how the crusading Skeeter diverges from her rigidly indoctrinated contemporaries, is the subplot about her hapless social life. She’d like to pick and choose…opt only for the folkways and mores of her culture she still holds dear. Whether she can find a local beau sympathetic to that path remains to be seen.
Moving, intelligent and told via stellar performances, novelist Kathryn Stockett’s uniquely personal look at the civil rights struggle reminds that the humanitarian work that gained momentum in the 1960s remains unfinished. Combined with a profoundly ennobling paean to sisterhood, this eyeopener just might be “The Help” the cause needs.
“The Help,” rated PG-13, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Tate Taylor and stars Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard and Octavia Spencer. Running time: 137 minutes
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