By now almost everyone knows the success story of Kathryn Stockett's best seller THE HELP. This heartfelt, well-plotted novel spread by word of mouth and loving reviews, but no one could have predicted that a story about black maids and their white female employers in Mississippi during the birth of the civil rights movement could touch such a national nerve. But, almost immediately, some hostility surfaced on the left and among black critics. How could a white person understand and portray the emotions of black people? Do we ask how Tolstoy and Stendhal understood their doomed heroines? Or how the many great female authors made men live in their pages?
Similar nay-sayers have objected to the film version that opened last week. They have also suggested that the film is a bit too rosy for such a socially dramatic time. After all, how can a movie be taken seriously when the audience breaks into laughter on a regular basis? Tate Taylor's adaptation (co-writer and director) of THE HELP manages to answers these objections with serious drama and human comedy. The story centers on Skeeter Phelen(Emma Stone), an Ole Miss grad who wants a writing career instead of an immediate wedding. When she returns to Jackson, she begins to notice in a new way the maids in the well kept homes of her Junior League friends. Her friends discuss the "Negro problem" openly as their maids wait on them or debate whether a maid should be allowed to use the indoor bathrooms. As she becomes torn between her old friends and her new interest in the plight of the maids, the conflict grows to a boil. Secretly, Skeeter sets up a series of interviews with the two other major characters, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) and eventually twelve other maids. One might expect that their tales would all be negative, but there are many stories of love and family, especially from those who raised the white children. This seems to be the crux of the film. Ironically, these children grow up to be like their spoiled mothers, and the culture of repression triumphs.
All this sounds too serious for a summer movie, right? Director Taylor infuses the film with rich, often earthy humorous set pieces, the major one centering on a special pie cooked by Minny. The serious tone of THE HELP is achieved primarily through a superb cast. Jessica Chastain creates a memorable Celia Foote, an insecure blonde bombshell who learns how to cook and to live because of her maid Minny. Octavia Spencer gives Minny a warmth and zest for living that she didn't seem to have in the novel, and Viola Davis invests Aibileen with such fierce devotion and love that she, and probably Spencer and Foote, will be Oscar nominees.
THE HELP manages to be the most entertaining yet most serious movie of the summer.