“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.
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.
On the other side of this exalted triumvirate are all those white women who are still comfortable with the way things are run in the Jim Crow South. The film’s chief target is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), president of the local Junior League, who is pushing a bill that would require employers to build separate outdoor bathrooms for the help.
It should not have been necessary for Taylor to caricature Hilly and the gossipy others, who also include scowly Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), Aibileen’s boss, and the childless, flirty trailer-trash Celia (Jessica Chastain). The ordeals of Aibileen and the other maids are sufficiently powerful without having to stack the deck.
Did the filmmakers perhaps feel that they would be capitulating to racism if they portrayed Hilly and her sister belles with a smidgen more “understanding”? (The men in the film barely register.) But comprehending a character’s actions is not the same thing as endorsing them. The intense superficiality of Hilly and the others is a disservice to the emotional complexity of racism and what it does to people, black and white.
The superficiality is doubly felt because the performances by Stone – but especially by Davis and Spencer – are so much more deeply felt. A lifetime of pain is in Aibileen’s weary rectitude and hard-set eyes. Minny, though much more flamboyant, carries the same burdens. The presence of these two women, which is ennobling without falsifying that nobility with sentimentality, periodically lifts “The Help” into a higher realm than, given its civics-lesson trappings, it probably deserves.
At the same time, I would defend “The Help,” simplistic though it is, against the charge some have leveled against it for being “patronizing.” It’s true that, by framing the maids' stories through Skeeter’s lens, the film implicitly overvalues the historical contribution of whites to the civil rights movement. But this film is a far cry from, say, “Mississippi Burning,” which made white FBI agents into civil rights heroes.
There are not so many stirring, full-fledged black characters on the screen, particularly black female characters, that we should feel it necessary to downgrade the few that we have by playing the blame game. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for thematic material.)