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The Help: movie review

Set in the Jim Crow South, 'The Help' too often feels like a civics lesson despite moments of nobility with stellar performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / August 9, 2011

In this film publicity image released by Disney, from left, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are shown in a scene from 'The Help.'

Dale Robinette/Disney/AP

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The Help,” based on the big 2009 bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, is set in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, and the movie itself sometimes looks like it was made in 1963. Despite its subject matter – the injustice of black-white race relations in the South at the dawn of the civil rights movement – it’s a carefully manicured, almost genteel piece of moviemaking. The film is paradoxically both rousing and lulling.

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Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a misfit belle recently graduated from college, writes the cleaning tips column for her local newspaper. She can’t pin down the reason why Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the beloved family maid, was let go. Charlotte (Allison Janney), Skeeter’s ailing mother, offers up only patently false excuses.

The relationship between Skeeter and Constantine was clearly closer than Skeeter’s bond with her mother. Among other things, “The Help” is about the intense emotional connection between white children and the black maids who raised them. These same children, as adults with their own children to raise, often hold their maids in disdain.

Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) has raised 17 white children in Jackson during a time when she lost her own son. Far more sensitive to racial grievances than, it would appear, any other white woman in Jackson, Skeeter warily coaxes Aibileen to tell her story for a book she plans to write that eventually includes the stories of other local maids. (Rather too obviously we get a glimpse of Skeeter’s bookshelf, which includes “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Native Son.”)
Even cloaked in anonymity, Skeeter’s book project is dangerous. The killing of civil rights worker Medger Evers, which burst onto the TV news halfway through the movie, is only the most overt instance of how high the racial stakes are.

The writer-director Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett’s from Jackson with only one previous feature film to his credit, positions Skeeter and Aibileen as the twin heroes of the piece. Actually, there’s a third – Aibileen’s best friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a maid who finds it difficult to suffer fools gladly – an occupational hazard, to say the least.

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