"The Help” is a film that exposes deplorable yet legal behavior toward blacks in 1962. It also rejoices in the idealism that brought about the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Based on the 2009 best-seller of the same name, the story takes place in Jackson, Miss. With the Jim Crow laws firmly in place, blacks have no voice. A recent college graduate, Skeeter (Emma Stone, of “Easy A”) returns home in hopes of becoming a journalist. She comes up with the idea of interviewing black maids and exposing the constant degradation that defines their lives.
She turns to Aibileen (Viola Davis), a long-suffering domestic servant of a friend. Just talking to Skeeter about her life would have been illegal, but she’s moved by a sermon about how “the truth shall set you free.” Eventually, Aibileen convinces her friends to share their stories with Skeeter. A book evolves, names are changed, and it’s anonymously penned.
Director/writer Tate Taylor (a childhood friend of the author, Kathryn Stockett) has thrown caution to the wind in his sociopolitical commentary. His heroes, of which there are many, are bold, multi-faceted and vastly vulnerable. The racist fear-mongers are shallow, sadistic and almost laughable — almost. But he also tosses in some hearty laughs and compassionate compromises, which lift the spirits.
“The Help” is a 99% character-driven piece of history. An incredibly gifted cast makes this film soar. Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) shines as a white-trash, nouveau-riche outcast who puts the despicable Bryce Dallas Howard (“Hereafter”) in her place. Allison Janney (“Juno”) and Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) are brilliant as matriarchs of a dying breed. But it’s Viola Davis (“Doubt”) and Octavia Spencer (“The Soloist”) who walk away with this insightful film.