“The Help,” an adaptation of a 2009 best seller of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, has a tricky story to tell. Make it too uplifting and it will ring historically false; make it too realistically downbeat and summer audiences might stay away. Luckily, the story of a Southern Belle’s social awakening and the women who made it possible, hits most of the right notes.
Set in the weeks and months leading up to the 1963 death of African American civil rights activist Medgar Evers, “The Help” is the story of Jackson, Mississippi native “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who comes home from four years at school to discover the woman who raised her, a maid named Constantine (Cicely Tyson), is no longer employed by her family. Her mother says she quit, but Skeeter has doubts. Meanwhile Skeeter takes a job writing a domestic maintenance column for the local newspaper. When she asks a friend’s maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis) for housekeeping tips she realizes there is more to the lives of the maids who raised her and her friends than she previously thought. With the help of a courageous group of housekeepers she tells the real story of the life of the maids, writing a book called “The Help.”
“The Help” is set at a time in the South when groups like the White Citizen’s Council had an office on Main Street and those same citizens didn’t see the irony of arriving at a charity event called The African Children’s Ball in a White’s Only taxi cab. The film gets the casual racism of the time right, offering up a sense of the era, but in a sanitized Hollywood sort of way. The brutal details of the book—stories of lynchings and corporal punishment for trifling matters—have been wiped away. Even the death of Evers, a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, happens off screen and goes largely unexplored.
There are some subtle moments that really ring true however. In one scene Skeeter visits Aibileen as she does her chores to try and convince her to be interviewed for the book. She’s meeting with her person to person, but when it starts to rain Skeeter rushes to get out of the rain without offering to help Aibileen gather up the rest of the laundry she had been bringing in from the clothes line. Skeeter wants to level the playing field between them, but she hasn’t yet completely let go of the idea of what is maid’s work and what is not.
But having said all that, this isn’t a history lesson. If you want real life grit rent “Eyes on the Prize”—Harry Hampton’s 1987 documentary on the American Civil Rights Movement from 1952 to 1965—because you won’t find it here. What you will find is a portrait of the South painted in broad strokes, performed by an eager and talented cast.
Some of the performances are pitched a bit over-the-top—Jessica Chastain, so understated in “The Tree of Life” seems positively ready to burst in the first half of this movie—but in the Southern Belle category, Emma Stone (and her football-sized eyes) brings some curly-haired determination to the role. She’s obviously different, the filmmakers seem to be telling us, because she’s the only one without a pulled back Beehive hairdo. Allison Janney as Skeeter’s dramatic mother—“My daughter has upset my cancerous ulcer,” she cries at one point—really shines and Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook, the town’s well-born racist, is a chilling reminder of the genteel face of intolerance.
The performance that sells the picture, however, belongs to Academy Award nominee Viola Davis. As Aibileen she is the soul of the film, a woman who has been hurt by life but is still capable of nurturing the very people who wounded her. Even though she doesn’t have the movie’s showiest role—that’s Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson—she’s still the film’s strongest and most memorable character.
“The Help” is a heartfelt and sincere story that could have benefited from a little less of those qualities and a little more realism.