Help, The

Civil Rights Begin at Home

Main Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard

Director: Tate Taylor

It’s always hard for me to decide if I want to see a movie adaptation of a book I’ve read. Mostly because, well, I already know what happens. But also because I have fixed in my mind how people and places should look and it’s rarely the way they end up on the screen. I usually prefer my imagination. But when someone slaps a $5 matinee ticket in my hand and asks if I want to see The Help, who am I to say no? Maybe it’ll be the next Shawshank Redemption (the movie against which I measure every book adaptation – totally unfairly and I don’t care). The Help is no Shawshank, but it’s definitely a good movie and a faithful adaptation of the very popular novel by Kathryn Stockett.

The movie is the story of two women, one black and one white, in the Mississippi of the early 1960s. Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is a young white woman of some privilege returning to the Jackson home of her parents after getting her college degree. Aibilene (Viola Davis) is a black maid working for a friend of Skeeter, barely scraping by and absorbing the daily humiliation of the vast racial divide of the day.

Skeeter wants to write. She wants to write about something important. She lands on the notion of writing about race from the perspective of the black maids employed by her parents and friends. In getting help from Aibilene to write the housekeeping column for the local paper that has become her day job Skeeter is witness to how badly “the help” is treated by her friends. She’d grown up with these people but only with the fresh perspective of having lived in the north for a few years does she recognize how unfair is the world in which she was raised. She wants the maids to tell her their stories – good and bad – about working for white women. The maids are justifiably terrified of such a notion – their livelihood depends on these wretched people. It’s Aibilene who finally breaks down and decides it’s time her story is told. She wants her trials to count for something. The film follows Skeeter as she pursues her book, the lives of her parents and friends as well as those of the black women as civil rights comes to Jackson, Mississippi.

The Help has been criticized (both book and movie) as being just another story of a white person veiled in the struggles of black people. There’s some truth to that, but there’s no other way for this story to be. Kathryn Stockett wrote what she knew – she grew up in Jackson and was raised by a black maid. That’s the voice in which she chose to write. For her to presume to be able to speak or write for the black women would have been met with equal or greater derision. She was damned either way by some faction or another.

But the movie suffers not a bit from being told from the point of view of a white girl. It’s about racism and the awakening of the civil rights movement in a place and circumstance that didn’t make the nightly news. All of the small victories achieved by regular people, both black and white, built the backbone of what was to become the much greater Civil Rights Movement across the country. Screenwriter and director Tate Taylor does a marvelous job bringing the time period and locale to life – from set design to costumes and especially casting. Viola Davis as Aibilene is simply amazing – strong and scared and filled with love and loss, she’s a beautifully written and realized character. Davis earned an Oscar nod for this role, rightly so. Emma Stone as Skeeter isn’t as strong – maybe she just isn’t quite how I pictured. Her performance is solid if not spectacular. Bryce Dallas Howard and Sissy Spacek steal the show as Hillie and her mother, respectively. Hillie is the Mean Girl – racist and cruel and vindictive – and Howard plays her to the delicious hilt. Spacek is a little dotty and a lot aware of the ugliness in her daughter. She’s sly and funny.

Overall The Help is a very good movie – a solid adaptation of a wildly popular book. It’s faithful to the story, beautifully imagined visually and backed by performances that range from good to excellent. The few liberties taken do not detract from the impact of the story. The Help is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and so far is the best movie of the bunch for me. I’ve still got more to see and I doubt The Help will win in the end, but it’s a reasonable contender, the first of the nominees I’ve seen that actually belongs on the list. Whether you’ve read the book or not, The Help gets 4 stars out of 5 and a strong recommendation.

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