The Help sneaks in just before our summer concludes, as one of the most poignant films of the year. A rare jewel in the midst of the blockbuster season. The casting is spot-on, hoisting Viola Davis back in the spotlight after her Oscar-nominated performance in Doubt and palling her with recent Crazy Stupid Love actress Emma Stone.
The story – an adaptation from author Kathryn Stockett’s book of the same name – set during Jim Crow days in Jackson, Miss., highlights the experience of black maids working for white families. Although we see many portrayals, the story is told through a singular voice.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), serving as narrator, details the discrimination, lousy pay, and sacrificing she made as a maid and surrogate mother to 17 white children. This coming at a time when blacks were marginalized to manual labor and jobs whites viewed as menial. Aibileen, however, remains strong. But the bravery to utilize her voice is encouraged by an unlikely source.
Determined to ignite change, young writer and Jackson-bred Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) elicits Aibileen for her perspective. As the daughter of parents who employ black maids, Skeeter not only dares to scribe more maids’ accounts but plans to have them published in a tell-all book – using pseudonyms of course.
As expected, the people of Jackson at this time aren’t fond of blacks and whites intermingling. Stepford wife-type, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) personifies many stuck in this mindset. As the villain, she’s beyond curt, refusing to use the restroom due to fear that Aibileen has used the same toilet once before.
Folks like Hilly certainly can’t get wind of friendly exchanges, let alone compassion between employers and the help. So to avoid the common name-calling and blackballing that accompanies such activity, Skeeter meets Aibileen at her home nightly. Aibileen then convinces best friend and fellow maid, the colorful and entertainingly funny Minny (Octavia Spencer) to assist. And as racial turmoil builds in the south, Skeeter has several more maids eagerly lending stories to her growing book.
The film perhaps runs a little longer than necessary but that’s minor – because it’s good. The acting is on par as well as the story. It could have taken us further into the discrimination and horror but it would’ve been at the risk of sacrificing the humor and charm sprinkled about the seriousness. The Help gives us just enough to empathize and applaud the bravery of these heroines – earning it 3 out of 4 stars.