Subtlety is not the strong suit of Tate Taylor’s filmization of Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller, a cunningly—but not cynically—manipulative picture that deals with the appalling system of racial apartheid in the American South of the 1960s in a way calculated to be uplifting rather than depressing. “The Help” is actually a curious hybrid. In part it’s a throwback to liberal films of the fifties and sixties that shamed white audiences by depicting the humiliation of African-Americans at the hands of cruel bigots. But it’s told in the breezier style of “The Blind Side,” which, while retaining the old crutch of putting a heroic white crusader at the center of the action, treated the bigotry with sharp-tongued disdain while telling a tale of ultimate triumph. And it adds to the mix a major thread about bonds among women that cross ethnic and economic lines, becoming as well a story of female as well as racial empowerment.
You could argue that it’s because it tries to cover so many bases at once that it runs to mini-epic length, clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours. But another reason for the length is that the movie is so clearly a labor of love for Taylor, a childhood friend of the author who seems to have been a mite too close to the material to prune and reshape it for the screen. He treats much of the film with a degree of solemnity that sometimes turns it into something like a well-intentioned dirge. Still, as far as these kinds of movies go, “The Help” has more to say than most, and even if it delivers the messages in italics, it has a welcome strain of humor that often has a sitcom feel but is sure to be crowd-pleasing nonetheless.
The film is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962-63, when the entrenched white community found itself pressured by the growing Civil Rights movement and reacted by reasserting the fallacious old “separate-but-equal” policy even more determinedly (the assassination of Medger Evers serves a background event at one point). The focus is on the upper-class white women of the city, both the older generation represented by Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek) and Charlotte Phelan (Allison Janney), whose attitude toward their black maids is generally kindly if still steeped in racist attitudes, and that of their daughters, who might have been raised in effect by African-American nannies but, once grown, generally take on the dismissive, superior stance characteristic of their society at large. The leader of this pack is haughty, spiteful Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Missus Walters’ daughter, who leads a drive to force black maids to use separate outdoor toilet facilities and lords it over the other ladies of her circle.
Her undoing proves to be Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), Charlotte’s daughter, who returns home with a degree from Ole Miss determined to become a writer. While taking a lowly job as an advice columnist with the local paper, she harbors an ambition to write a book, and fastens on the idea of collecting the stories of African-American maids to disclose the realities of Jackson society from their perspective, giving voice to the voiceless as it were. That project begins with the initially hesitant participation of thoughtful, long-suffering Aibileen (Viola Davis), who works for Elizabeth Leefold (Ahna O’Reilly), a flighty friend of Hilly, but eventually comes to include the reminiscences of Minny (Octavia Spencer), the tart, cheeky servant to Missus Walters who’s fired by Hilly for insubordination in the matter of bathrooms and eventually goes to work for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the naïve, childish white-trash wife of a local fellow whom Hilly ostracizes not only for her lack of breeding but for having married a guy she once dated. Celia’s embrace of Minny as a friend and confidante stands in stark contrast to the way the other maids are treated by their employers.
From here the requirements of the plot are all fulfilled in predictable but satisfying ways. Skeeter’s book project will proceed under the prodding of her hard-nosed prospective New York editor (Mary Steenburgen, in a choice cameo), though not without setbacks. Hilly will get the comeuppance she so richly deserves—at the hands of both Skeeter and Missy—even while doing her best (or worst) to continue doing damage. Though Aibileen will suffer for her courage, she’ll also be recognized as the hero she is, while Missy will find a better life as well. And Skeeter will win her mother’s admiration even as she learns the sad truth about how her old nanny Constantine (Cicely Tyson) ended her days after decades of loyal service.
Along the way there are turns that go on too long or lead to dead-ends. Howard plays Hilly very broadly, and comes off a shrill, catty stereotype whose multiple humiliations become tiresome (Missy’s “terrible, awful” is reiterated over and over, and Charlotte’s last-act tongue-lashing is over-the-top, if crowd-pleasing), though it does give Janney a chance to shine. The director plays overmuch on the viewer’s heartstrings in his depiction of Aibileen’s loving relationship with Elizabeth’s young daughter, whom her mother ignores; the reaction shots of the little girl will be met with sighs from audiences (especially older women viewers), but they’re really no less crude than the usual ones of adorable dogs. And the male characters are ciphers—it’s almost as though they didn’t exist. Missy’s abusive husband does his dirty work entirely off-screen, and those of Hilly’s circle are peripheral figures. A subplot about Skeeter’s on-again, off-again romance with Hilly’s friend Stuart (Chris Lowell) is intrusive and—though it’s intended to spotlight the fact that white women were victimized in this male-dominated world, too, though less brutally—unnecessary. In fact, the only male figures who emerge positively—apart from the stoic black waiter at the local drugstore—are Celia’s supportive hubby (Mike Vogel), who turns up briefly at the close, and Leslie Jordan, who does a nifty vaudeville turn (including, we’re meant to believe, a cartwheel) as Skeeter’s newspaper editor.
But “The Help” is saved by the quality of the other performances. Spacek and Janney have enormous fun as representatives of the older generation, and their obvious enjoyment is infectious. Chastain, who was the best thing in “The Tree of Life,” sinks her teeth into what amounts to a “Beverly Hillbillies” fish-out-of-water role with a relish audiences will eat up. And Stone cuts an engaging figure as the initially frazzled but strong-willed Skeeter. The real triumphs, however, belong to Davis, whose attitude of wounded dignity is poised and balanced throughout, and the little-known Spencer, who simply socks the part of sassy but lovable Missy out of the ballpark. In a just world these would be star-making roles. And one shouldn’t overlook Tyson, who puts her own frailty to powerful use in her few, but emotionally wrenching, scenes as Constantine.
From the technical perspective the picture is entirely pro, with nice period detail from production designer Mark Ricker, art director Curt Beech, set decorator Rena Deangelo and costume designer Sharen Davis and appropriately glossy cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt. Even Hughes Winborne’s editing—though it might have been a bit more aggressive in spots—is cleanly done, and Thomas Newman’s score, though pure formula, is undeniably effective.
In the end, “The Help” may be well-intentioned schmaltz, delivering its high-minded morals in obvious crowd-pleasing fashion. But with such luminous performances as those of Davis, Spencer and Tyson, Tate’s picture makes the canny mixture of drama, sentiment and comedy a more palatable brew than it has any right to be.