The Help polishes the civil rights era like its heroic maids shine the silverware. It is feel-good righteousness at its most crowd-pleasing, without the antagonism featured in most movies about Jim Crow. White folks generally don't like black people in Tate Taylor's movie but they're somewhat civil about it, oozing subtle racism through genteel veneers.
What the movie also mostly avoids is Hollywood's typical depiction of put-upon African-Americans awaiting a white person to lift them from despair. Obviously the steel magnolia caricatures giving orders aren't real threats. The maids can handle matters on their own, with only a nudge from a white do-gooder, who graciously steps aside to let others turn tables usually set for dinner.
Based on Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help is a timidly well-intended Southern-fried fantasy. There really isn't much to complain about, except the feeling when it ends that it might have been something more. Stockett and Taylor are close friends; she lobbied for the relatively inexperienced filmmaker to be hired. He returns the favor with the movie Stockett's readers probably envisioned, so they'll be thrilled.
The Help unfolds with the return of Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) from college to Jackson, Miss., and the superficiality she never minded leaving behind. Skeeter wants to be a writer, with an encouraging rejection letter to show for it. She tolerates the weekly bridge party clique, women of leisure since maids are raising the children they were groomed to breed.
The queen bee is Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard with an icy air of superiority that is constantly hissable. Hilly's true colors are shown early and often, starting with her comments about "the colored situation." She insists that blacks have different diseases and building outdoor toilets for the help is the best solution. Hilly has a proposal to the White Citizens Council to make it law. Boo. Hiss.
Overhearing the casual hate is Aibileen Clark, the full-blooded role Viola Davis has deserved for years and may win an Oscar for playing. Aibileen is a maid who heard such talk before. Like her mother and grandmother, she never talked back. Her son died of a work accident and racist neglect. All she has left are years of raising little white babies like their mamas should, for $182 a month.
Skeeter takes note of both women, disgusted by Hilly and intrigued by Aibileen. Maybe there's a tell-all book in this, told from the help's point of view. "It's not about me," she tells Aibileen when requesting her assistance. And it isn't, to the benefit of The Help. Taylor rightly shifts attention to Aibileen and her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), who's happy to share her experiences after being fired.
Focusing on these women enables Taylor to raise the stakes for the help's rebellion. The real-life murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson in 1963 and the arrest of another maid provide more accurate examples of the serious repercussions Aibileen and Octavia face. That makes the film's late shift to comedic revenge easier to digest. The Help never trivializes Jim Crow segregation but doesn't take it as seriously as the subject deserves. It's a movie of terrific performances and rousing comeuppances, with a side order of cornpone for the soul.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.