“The Help” is a pleasant, enjoyable and occasionally heartrending film about a delicate and frankly unflattering time period in America’s social history. The setting is an upper-class community situated in Jackson, Mississippi, and the time is the early 1960s when the Jim Crow laws were nearing their final years of enforcement. These decrees offered a “separate but equal” compromise amongst the whites and the blacks through color-specific buses and restrooms, but truthfully did not work as well when put in practice and were instead counterproductive to issues regarding racial discrimination.
‘The help’ is a term that refers to the society of African-American maids and servants that acted as hired hands to aristocratic female employers, headed by the greatly misguided and unbearably snooty Hilly Holbrooke (Bryce Dallas Howard). And for generations, the help have aided these families in housekeeping, cooking and raising their young. Sometimes they would even make influential bonds with the children that stuck with them for the rest of their lives. But as one crop of children grows to adulthood, they start their own families. And because of Hilly’s influence on the town, once she has a child, everybody else in town must have one, too.
I guess I think it is kind of refreshing to see an antagonist like Hilly Holbrook in the movies. She is indeed thoroughly detestable in her actions and it is sweet to watch her get her comeuppance, but she is not a cartoonishly evil being that figuratively moustache-twirls at every successful ploy. Instead, Hilly is the type of villain who believes in everything she does and wants everything her way. And if the movie’s main enemy is played by an often likeable star like Bryce Dallas Howard successfully, I think it is safe to assume that the actress herself gives a good performance.
However, there is but one white person in Jackson who is personally bothered by this unfair distribution of rights and power over the help. Her name is Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) and she is a smart, hardworking individual who recently graduated from college. As she makes a return to her hometown of Jackson, the aspirant journalist also scores a respectable job opportunity as writer for the local newspaper called The Jackson Journal. On the side, she decides to record anonymous accounts from the perspective of the help with hopes of exposing the injustices and degradation behind the scenes. She gets two reluctant recruits with the gentle and caring Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and the saucy Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer).
Even though trailers and posters have made this out to be an Emma Stone starring vehicle, it is really Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer who are the main stars of the film. Not that Stone gives a bad performance, but her character is kind of the blank slate type who is the outlet for maids to reveal their true feelings. For example, Aibileen knew even from childhood that she would grow up to be a house servant just like her mother and grandmother. Minny plays a big part in the film’s comic relief, but she has her serious moments, such as her issues with spousal abuse.
Of course, this endeavor was a big risk at the time, as it could put all involved in danger with the law and the townspeople. As for the rest of the story, there are quite a few minor plots thrown in here and there to make for a more enriched narrative. One of which is Skeeter trying to get to the bottom of why her family’s maid is now gone, and another involves a feud between Minny and Hilly over an incident with a chocolate pie. Other supporting roles include Jessica Chastain as a white women ostracized from the elite for past transgressions and Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s eccentric mother.
“The Help” is not quite as gritty, dauntless with its tough-to-swallow premise, or as bound to draw controversy as something like “The Long Walk Home” with Whoopi Goldberg, but it is not trying to be. Instead, it is a sound, well-acted piece of filmmaking that entertains its viewers in addition to educating them about a touchy chapter in American history. It is dramatic when it needs to be, and is other times moving and funny. Most of all, it is confident of what it wants to be.