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The Secret Lives of ‘The Help’

Viola Davis is brilliant in Tate Taylor's adaptation of a 2009 bestseller

Writer/director Tate Taylor, like his close friend Stockett, hails from the South. He’s true to the novel, but at 137 minutes the script could have benefited from some cutting. That said, he does an excellent job of developing his characters’ personalities, especially those of the maids. (In her book, Stockett accomplished this largely through a written dialect; Taylor does so by drawing out physical bearing.) As the central maid character, Aibileen, Viola Davis is superb; the perfect combination of driven-down timidity and quiet rebelliousness. Her friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) is bitter, hardened by a ne’er-do-well husband, a bunch of kids and a series of disrespecting white women employers. You will love her.

While Hollywood has offered up over time assorted memorable figures involved in the equality struggle, rarely has film — or literature — looked closely at the pathology of the white women who quietly carried out the racist practices accepted in American homes in the early 1960s. The Help holds a mirror to those of us who aspired to lily-white lifestyles in gossipy neighborhoods made up of homes where an underclass of helpers would clean and cook and protect our illusions. Bryce Dallas Howard, as the conniving and unempathetic Hilly, and Jessica Chastain, as the wannabe-from-the-other-side-of-the tracks, are both women who fascinate us and force us to examine ourselves.

While some of the pacing of The Help is off, and some of the personalities at times overdrawn, Stockett and Taylor will entertain mass audiences with their story. All the while, we’ll be watching an important movie about how the lives of diverse women intersected at a critical time of history, and changed us all forever.

Also of interest: Historic Site for Sit-ins Becomes Civil Rights Center and Museum.

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