The Help

The lives of African-American housemaids in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi

The Help

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Directed by Tate Taylor. Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen. Written by Tate Taylor, from the novel by Kathryn Stockett.

Tate Taylor’s The Help, based on the popular novel by Kathryn Stockett, is a “nice”, entertaining, enjoyable film with one real storytelling concern: it’s the story of the tribulations of African-American housemaids in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, as framed by the story of the white, affluent woman who tells their story.

Critics have been complaining about this kind of Hollywood storytelling for years (see also: The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Machine Gun Preacher). At worst, it comes off as condescending, in a “this is a ‘difficult’ story, so here’s a protagonist you might be able to relate to” way. At best, it limits the potential of the real story.

Director Taylor does his best under the circumstances, and the resulting film will please any crowd that doesn’t closely examine the underlying psychology of what they’re watching. Still, the real story of racial strife in 1960s Jackson is a helluva lot more interesting than the story of the white woman who helped expose that strife.

That woman is Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), who returns to Jackson after earning a college degree, gets a job at the local newspaper writing a cleaning advice column, and is thrust into the social circle of bridge club, husband hunting, and gossip. She’s concerned when she hears about a bill proposed by friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, who has her work cut out for her getting away from Queen Bitch roles here and in 50/50) that will require separate, outdoor bathrooms for “the help.”

“The help” here is represented the housemaid/nanny Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, who also narrates) in the employ of Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who is fired by Hilly after using her indoor bathroom. During a tornado. After getting permission from Hilly’s mother (Sissy Spacek).

Minny isn’t able to find another job after Hilly spreads word of her egregious offense. But Abilene introduces her to the one person Hilly hasn’t gotten to: ditzy, hopeless Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who has been ostracized from Hilly’s social circle for marrying her ex-beau.

The scenes between Minny and Celia are compassionate and honest, and startlingly effective. They’re the best The Help has to offer, and give a glimpse at what the rest of the film could have achieved had it focused on these characters and others like them. Both Spencer and Chastain have been nominated for an Oscar for their work, and deservedly so.

The rest of the film, however, is push and pull between Abilene’s story (raising someone else’s child after the death of her own, living in Jackson during the Medgar Evers assassination) and Skeeter’s story (her book deal with Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen) and, uh, a romantic subplot that goes nowhere). The most egregious offense comes to dealing with Skeeter’s former nanny: the poor woman’s heartbreaking story comes across as mawkish when told through Skeeter’s eyes.

Skeeter’s storyline(s) help push The Help to a bloated 2:30 running time, but the film never drags: it’s an engaging ride, all credit to writer-director Taylor for making it work. This may not be the film that I wanted to see, but its target audience will be much more appreciative.

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