‘The Help’: Elegant story of wanting to be equal

“THE HELP”

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In Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, (left to right) Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) together take a risk that could have profound consequences for them all in DreamWorks Pictures’ drama, “The Help”, based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.

Ph: Dale Robinette

©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

There is an old saying about revenge being a dish best served cold. That couldn’t be more true (and funnier) than when one of the maids in The Help takes the statement quite literally.

The pie scene (you’ll know it when you see it) is one of the best and most memorable moments in a film that otherwise left me feeling somewhat sad. The scene is milked as much as possible for laughs, and the few moments of lightheartedness were welcome in the mostly serious film.

Based on the 2009 best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is a heart-tugging, watered-down picture of 1960s race relations in the South. Writer/director Tate Taylor is a close friend of Stockett’s so it is safe to assume that the movie stayed fairly close to the source material.

It doesn’t get much more Southern than Jackson, Miss., where the film is set. The Southern stereotypes are in full force, featuring everything from fried chicken to the upper-class white families with black maids. And those maids are the focus of the film.

They are the women who cook, clean and basically raise their employers’ children, but heaven forbid one of them use the same toilet or piece of silverware. Jim Crow laws still rule the land, and those actions are grounds for firing or worse.

Fresh from college, aspiring writer Eugenia “Skeeter” Phlalen (Emma Stone) sees the iniquities between the black maids and the white families and decides to interview them for an anonymous tell-all book about their experiences.

Initially, the only maid on board is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who works for one of Skeeter’s good friends. The others are afraid to go against the establishment. Eventually Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), the maid with the smart mouth that gets her into trouble more often than not, decides to tell her story as well. It takes a tragedy to get many more Jackson-area maids involved.

Aibileen’s strength is admirable (her life outside of work certainly isn’t a cakewalk), as is Minny’s (even though she’s mostly played for comic relief). Davis and Spencer are certainly the standouts in the cast; they play their characters with immense believability.

The resident villain in the tale is Hilly Holbrook (played exquisitely by Bryce Dallas Howard), Minny’s employer at one point. Hilly’s evil deeds include having a new toilet room built outside for her maid to use under the guise of “separate but equal.”

I didn’t love Emma Stone in the movie; I think she’s better in more playful roles like Easy A and Crazy, Stupid, Love, but I liked that her role was more of the facilitator rather than the savior.

My favorite character was Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). Vilified by Hilly and her troupe for being “white trash,” a closer look at Celia showed a kind-hearted yet misunderstood woman.

The Help is designed to be a feel-good movie. Most of the target audience will see (or want to see) themselves in Skeeter, while despising the evil that Hilly represents. Still, it’s a sad reminder of how things used to be in America.

Race relations are a divisive subject, and movies that deal with the issue are often controversial. The Help is sure to have people talking — and that’s probably not a bad a thing. ••

Movie Grade: B