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The Secret Lives of ‘The Help’

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

From left: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in The Help

Photo Courtesy Of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Viola davis (left) and Octavia Spencer give stirring performances in <i>The Help</i>.

Directed by Tate Taylor
Rated PG-13,  Runtime: 137 mins.
Stars: Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer

En español  |  Cultural historians who take issue with the accuracy of The Help are splitting hairs. This is a film based on a hugely popular novel that A) gives us a glimpse into a period of history from the perspective of a people we’ve yet to hear from; and B) celebrates the relations, in all their idiosyncrasies, of women (in this case living in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi) both white and black. What’s wrong with that? In addition, The Help offers up a great story and nuanced characters portrayed by some fine actresses.

Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller takes as its protagonist Skeeter (Emma Stone), an Ole Miss grad who returns to her native Jackson in the ’60s as a fledgling writer.

While penning a housekeeping column for the local paper, she befriends the black maids who work for local families, including her own. In the process, Skeeter morphs into a secret militant against discrimination — especially after her former best pal Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) begins a campaign as Junior League president to pass a bill requiring employers to provide separate, outdoor bathrooms for their “help,” supposedly to prevent the spread of disease. Skeeter knows first-hand, having been raised as much by an African American nanny as by her own mother (Allison Janney), that the “help” are a significant part of the family structure, and that requiring them to use segregated lesser facilities is not only unjust but cruel.

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.