My favorite college professor often insisted that the goal of journalism was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” A corny notion perhaps -- and surely not his own to begin with -- but it’s a noble thought all the same.
Maybe the entirely fictional ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) was given the same advice at Ole Miss before she graduated and returned home to Jackson, Mississippi, only to find herself upset by the rigid social structure of her white friends and continual dismissal of their black maids in the summer of ‘62. Or maybe, more selfishly, she pitched a book anonymously chronicling the frustrations of the help to a big-city publisher strictly to make a name for herself. Whatever her motivation, Skeeter earns first the trust of Aibileen (Viola Davis), then that of Minny (Octavia Spencer), and begins to write a book bound to upset the likes of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the kind of woman who proposes that every white family should have a separate bathroom for the help to use in order to keep them from spreading “their diseases.”
Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help proceeds to span years of desperation and doubt as Aibileen and Minny are increasingly put-upon and yet also in danger of being accosted for speaking out of turn. As the stakes grow higher in a time and place defined by Jim Crow laws, so does the necessity for such an expose. As a look at an important era in race relations, it’s a typically tidy portrait -- the white character needs the black characters as much the reverse. But as a character study, it’s well-measured and very well-acted, with a welcome amount of humor countering the endless parade of heartache.
Stone is likeable by default, all wide-eyed and committed to being her own woman (with, gasp, a job!). More importantly, Spencer and Davis run hot and cold wonderfully, as Minny’s outspoken ways help urge the more stoic Aibileen to speak up for herself. Aibileen has been raising white girls her whole life, only to know that they will grow up to be every bit as insecure and ignorant as their mothers; in Jackson, as was the case across the South, the help were a critical yet unsung part of the family unit whose own children had to be cared by others until they had to forsake education for jobs of their own. And it’s this unfailing inequality that gets under Davis’ skin; her performance is kept at a simmer throughout and never quite boils over, because to do so at the time might have proven fatal. Spencer’s sense of sass is welcome, but Davis really gets to the heart of the matter in a spectacularly understated way.
Broader are Dallas Howard, all afluster while practically making an art out of dismissive gestures and sneers, and a virtually unrecognizable Jessica Chastain as the bubbly blonde who offers Minny a job after Hilly has warned all other white women away from her. Celia isn’t acting out of spite, though, as much as Hilly likes to think; she just wants to be the perfect housewife for her husband without having a clue how to cook or clean for herself. The bond of sisterhood that carries Aibileen and Minny through tough times is nicely contrasted against the Hilly-Celia dynamic, in which the hollow sanctity of social circles causes whites to ostracize one another in addition to blacks.
Oh, but that’s not all. I haven’t even mentioned Hilly’s forgetful but considerate mother (played well by Sissy Spacek), or Skeeter’s cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney), or Skeeter’s mysteriously absent maid (Cicely Tyson), or Skeeter’s would-be suitor (Chris Lowell). Such a labor of love this was that I fear Taylor either didn’t cut much or didn’t cut out enough in his translation to the screen; the film runs nearly two and a half hours all told, and it risks losing its impact with each additional turn of the screw. On top of that, there is a moment involving a pie that, while adding considerable levity and an extra dose of scandal to the proceedings, seems to be out of another type of film altogether.
Granted, Taylor doesn’t end things with a big courtroom speech or anything; if anything, the ending seems to be continually postponed, as a much-discussed banquet finally happens, and then the publication of the book takes place, and then we get the response to the book. He doesn’t want to bail on his characters, and in the name of giving credit where it’s due, he keeps his focus on finding personal closure in favor of the grandstanding gestures that tend to define films of this ilk. The Help backs the idea that even the smallest change can matter, and while it may not always be subtle, it pulls off a rare feat of sincerity -- it’s corny, perhaps, but noble all the same.