(by Dustin Putman
The idea of a white male writer-director adapting a novel written by a white woman about the social- and race-related issues of a very much black female experience doesn't necessarily sound ideal on paper, but both the best-selling book by Kathryn Stockett and the film version of "The Help" by Tate Taylor (whose only previous feature was 2009's little-seen indie "Pretty Ugly People") have seemingly beaten the odds and dodged fears that the material would be biased and/or, for lack of a better term, whitewashed for mainstream readers and audiences. In regards to this lavish, impeccably cast big-screen rendering, color truly is blind, the race of its makers playing no noticeable part in the tough, touching, unsentimental telling of marginalized African-American maids struggling to make ends meet while working for privileged Caucasian families in the midst of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Taylor does not hold back from the down and dirty details of ignorance and intolerance permeating through the story, but he has also avoided making a one-sided, "whites are evil" diatribe, either. As "The Help" so eloquently and emphatically sees it, discrimination and bigotry are a sad truth, but within a person's humanity is a miraculous propensity for compassion and acceptance. Any road toward equality is rough and not without its bumps, but circumstances are never completely hopeless. Change is possible. Article continues below
Jackson, Mississippi, 1963. With all of her hometown friends married and having children, 23-year-old Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) is the odd woman out, her college diploma and a new job writing at the local newspaper viewed not as rightful personal and professional accomplishments, but merely sad reminders that she hasn't found a man to settle down with yet. Kept in the dark by cancer-stricken mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) as to why their long-time help—and her beloved childhood nanny—Constantine (Cicely Tyson) no longer works for them, Skeeter's views are nonetheless broadened by the prejudices she sees in her friends' actions. With queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) starting the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, ensuring that their maids do not share the same bathrooms as them, Skeeter gets the bright—but potentially dangerous—idea to write a book from the perspective of the help. Inquiring the assistance of downtrodden veteran Aibileen (Viola Davis), still mourning the death of her only son while continuing to raise her employers' children, and the disgraced Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), not afraid to tell it like it is after getting run out of Hilly's house, Skeeter's forthright tell-all is sure to paint a harsh, even scandalous, picture, but it might just be the mirror these folks of Jackson need to take a long look at themselves. There is the threat of a deadline, however. "Write it, and write it fast," urges New York City publisher Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen), "before this Civil Rights thing blows over."
For an easily digestible but still thoughtful, character-concentrated commercial entertainment, "The Help" is the whole package. Shedding light on a prickly era in America's history that today's younger generations have little connection to—or, sad to say, only a vague understanding of—the film remains blessedly human even as it delves into the narrow-minded injustices that black people had to still face nearly a century after the abolishment of slavery. The tides of time are destined to change minds, but so, too, can hatred and dogmatism be passed down into children. This is something that Aibileen knows all too well. Currently working for the Leefolt family and caring for their toddler daughter—the seventeenth white child she has raised in her years being a maid—she has laid witness time and again to the power of intolerance in a society that too often brainwashes the innocent. Sadly, by the time they are adults themselves, many have turned into Hilly, seeing the ones who raised them as inferior, even foreign, entities purely because of the weight placed on the color of their skin. Aibileen recognizes that she has sacrificed her own life to bow down to the unappreciative people she works for, and she hates it. What other choice has she got?
If there is a bright beacon shining on Jackson, it is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan. She was not raised to discriminate, making it all the more confusing when she returns to her parents' home and Constantine is no longer with them. As hard as it might be to hear, Constantine was more a mother to her than Charlotte was. Constantine and her daughter Rachel (LaChanze) were certainly a part of the Phelan family, too, but the pressure to conform to the mass populace left Charlotte weak-willed. All she wanted was to fit in. Skeeter, by comparison, doesn't care what people think, pushed closer and closer to speaking her mind the more she is exposed to the insensitivity around her. True, she begins dating rig worker Stuart Whitworth (Chris Lowell), but that is an aside to what she wants to do with her life, not who she wants to spend it with. Credit must go to writer-director Tate Taylor for bypassing easy melodrama and even easier conventions. Cancer, marital abuse, miscarriages, police brutality in the wake of Medgar Evers' awful assassination—the story is full of hot-button topics, yet never strains for mawkishness or panders to its audience; instead, the frequently raw truths of its subject matter speak loudly by playing out naturally and empathetically. At no point does the film suggest, as her family and friends do, that Skeeter can only live a fulfilled life with a hubby and offspring. By the end, Skeeter's future is wide open and her talents as a writer are what she hopes to use to get ahead. As for men, well, who needs 'em?
No acting ensemble this year has featured so many awards-caliber performances, work that gives its actresses a rarified meat and depth without falling back on romantic entanglements or artificially strained conflicts. Viola Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her scene-stealing two-scene work in 2008's "Doubt" and has since become decidedly prolific. Lead roles, alas, have eluded her until now. As Aibileen, who also narrates the picture, Davis is remarkable all over again in a transformative part aching with the pangs of regret and a silent wilfulness waiting to burst over. She wants to believe there's something more than what she's been forced to do all her life, and in Skeeter she finds someone actively interested in listening to what she has to say and understanding what she's had to go through as a black woman in the 1960s Deep South. As the free-thinking Skeeter, Emma Stone (2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love.") proves that she can do no wrong. If there was going to be a challenging role that could very well make stumble this firecracker's journey to the A-list, it would be this earnest Southern-bred protagonist. A lesser performer might have turned Skeeter into a stereotype or exaggeration of a plucky, curly-haired progressive without a flaw to her name, but Stone plays it honestly. She's a charmer, indeed, but also genuinely intelligent, literate, and even stubborn. Take it or leave it.
The superb cast don't stop with Viola Davis and Emma Stone. Free from the restraints that tiny walk-on parts possess, Octavia Spencer (2010's "Dinner for Schmucks") runs away with the breakthrough of her career as Minny Jackson, a proud black woman who can't reconcile people needlessly walking all over her. It is this resounding characteristic that gets her fired by Hilly and then rendered an outcast in the town. Unable to find another family to hire her—Hilly has spread terrible rumors around to everyone who will listen—Minny's last stop in her job hunt takes her to the outskirts of Jackson, where friendly, overexcited Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is struggling to be a good wife to Johnny (Mike Vogel) and doing a crummy job at cooking and cleaning. A pariah herself to Hilly and her minions for reasons yet to be discovered, Celia quickly bonds with Minny and gives her the job she so desperately needs. There are darker sides to Celia's everyday life than meets the eye, and Jessica Chastain (2011's "The Tree of Life") is alternately adorable and poignant as a woman who can't seem to fit in. Most critical of all, in Celia is Minny's own vision of hope at a moment when the world seems unremittingly grim to her. In their own way, they save each other.
Bryce Dallas Howard (2010's "Hereafter") is brilliant as the hypocritical, bigoted Hilly Holbrook, smiling through vicious gritted teeth while refusing to admit how unhappy and empty her own life is. With an increasingly prominent blister on her upper lip revealing itself the more her inner ugliness shows through, Hilly is a sad product of what her late father passed down to her. Howard's late showdown with Aibileen is especially emotionally rattling. As Hilly's daffy mom, who may be losing her marbles but is still sane enough to despise who her daughter has become, Sissy Spacek (2008's "Four Christmases") masterfully moves between comic relief and sobering drama while refusing to turn her into a caricature. Allison Janney (2010's "Life During Wartime") is excellent as Skeeter's mom, the tragedy being that she's not as strong as her daughter, while Cicely Tyson (2006's "Idlewild"), appearing in key flashbacks as the Phelans' beloved maid of twenty-nine years Constantine, haunts the proceedings, a heartbreaking example of how blind racism can destroy lives.
Usually when people describe movies as ones in which "you'll laugh, you'll cry," it is code for films that try too hard to be cute and dramatically manipulative. While watching "The Help," it is a safe bet that most viewers will laugh and cry, but here it's only code for a motion picture that so staggeringly captures the humor and sorrow that comes with being human and existing in a world that is not always fair. This isn't some cinematic approximation of a Hallmark greeting card, but a lovingly crafted, well-balanced drama that does proud the novel it's based upon and a summer movie season that has been lacking in the kind of substance and insight that can only come from seeing authentic people in important—but not self-important—stories brought vibrantly to fruition. Director Tate Taylor's aesthetics are unshowy but unblemished—the art direction, production design and costumes all aid in depicting an undeniably specific time and place—at the service of the bigger picture, and what a satisfying one it is. Without being preachy, "The Help" has the power to open eyes and the potential impact to urge viewers to see things in a different way, not only about race relations but about any question of rights that might be hotly debated and controversial today, but will no doubt seem just as antiquated, prejudicial and short-sighted fifty years from now. We can only hope. "The Help" is a beautiful story, beautifully told.