I confess that I am one of the few people in America who has yet to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, “The Help.” That ignorance put me in the distinct minority among the audience for the film version, judging from the conversation before and during the movie, but it also left me untainted by the expectations that it would live up to the book. So I’m pleased to report that the story, adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, is a pleasurable viewing experience, though not a great one.
The structure of the novel relies on interviews with African-American women serving as maids in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960’s. The movie throws in some reminders of the era: the deaths of Medgar Evers and JFK, the Freedom Riders, the infamous Gov. Ross Barnet and so forth. But the focus stays clearly on a small segment of the population of Jackson: the privileged young white women of the town and the black women who serve them.
The catalyst for the action is young Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), an Ole Miss grad who returns to her hometown aspiring to be a journalist and novelist. Her first job at the local paper is to write the house cleaning advice column, though she has already made some contacts with an editor in New York (Mary Steenburgen). Events lead her to hit upon the idea of writing a book about the lives of the maids, told from their point of view. In the racially-charged atmosphere of the early civil rights era—the editor thinks it will “blow over”—her project is a dangerous, potentially illegal one.
The first maid she contacts, Aibelen Clark (Viola Davis), recognizes the diciness and the danger of the idea, but Skeeter (with a little help from God) eventually gets her to start relating her “stories,” which she has written down just as she does her prayers. From this point on, Davis becomes the film’s star: I’m betting she’ll get an Oscar nomination. Her portrait of a woman who loves the children she raises while despising their abusive, neglectful parents is nuanced and convincing. Indeed, the pace slackens a bit whenever she’s offscreen.
Happily, she has the support of Octavia Spencer, playing Aibelene’s friend and fellow maid Minnie Jackson. When Minnie is fired by her employer Hilly Holbrook (played bitchily by Bryce Dallas Howard), she gets back in a comic and bawdy move that keeps rippling through the rest of the movie, with the aid of Hilly’s dotty mother (Sissy Spacek). Minnie joins Aibelene as as a contributor to Skeeter’s work, and Spencer’s superb comic style pulls the film along with it.
A subplot involving Skeeter’s love life or lack thereof doesn’t add much, especially because it’s hard to believe that the luminous Stone has never dated. And too many characters dance along the edge of stereotype, occasionally falling in. This gets easy laughs, but it somewhat degrades the film’s impact. The South is peculiarly susceptible to stereotyping, Lord knows, but taking cheap shots makes one question the authenticity, which is critical here, fiction or no.
Still, this is an actor’s movie, and Tate (essentially an actor in his first director role) gives his excellent cast room to run. Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother and the still estimable Cicely Tyson as the maid who basically raised Skeeter bring life to their small but critical parts. Tate jerks our emotional strings effectively, and he makes good use of Jessica Chastain as (mostly) comic relief in her role as a white trash wife who wants in to the smug, tight little closed society of the Jackson Junior League.
“The Help” is rated “PG-13,” and that’s about right. Younger people, who have only their parents and history books to understand the real situation of black people in the South, would be well (if not fully) served by seeing the movie. And it wouldn’t hurt the generation that did live through the period to revisit it and consider whether this is all in the past.