The Help would capture the best and worst of the South during that volatile period. The film is a warm, touching tribute to the great black women who devoted their lives to caring for the children of white families. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel and directed by her childhood friend Tate Taylor, The Help gets everything right about the genteel, casually racist Jackson, Mississippi setting, with a fantastic cast of women who couldn’t be any better.
Scottsdale native Emma Stone plays the unfortunately-named Skeeter Phelan, a late bloomer who returns to her family’s plantation to find that her beloved housekeeper Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has left. She also discovers that the girls she grew up with have become cruel bigots who abuse their help while letting them take over raising their kids. Viola Davis almost seethes with unreleased power as Aibileen, a maid who is caring for a young girl after her own son was killed. This is Davis’ finest work since Doubt, and it is sure to garner her another Oscar nomination.
Octavia Spencer plays too-sassy-for-her-own-good Minnie, a pie-making maid who runs afoul of town queen bee Hilly Holbrook, played to bitchy perfection by Bryce Dallas Howard. Foul about describes Minnie’s act of retribution after Hilly fires her and blacklists her from getting work anywhere else, but it is hilarious as well.
Much Sturm and Drang has been published about how The Help diminishes what African-Americans were doing to lead the way on their own struggle for equality, but the truth is that there were also white people (my parents included) who saw the injustice and fought in small and large ways for change. Stone gives a great performance in a bad perm, as does Allison Janney as her cancer-stricken mother and Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s plain-spoken but memory-impaired mother. Jessica Chastain is a marvel as town outcast Celia Foote, who just wants to be liked by the women of Jackson.
People may disagree with the cinematic world that The Help recreates, but it is a heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking, look back at history that will definitely strike a nerve with you. It is one of the best films of the year so far.
Reel Thougths Rating: A
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.