This movie shows both why the book became a hit and why publishers turned it down. I admired aspects of the film a great deal, but there were still moments when, had it been a book, I might have launched it across the room.
The film’s heroine is Caucasian college graduate Skeeter (Emma Stone), who returns to her roots in 1962 after four years away, and sees Southern society with newly judgmental eyes.
Hells belles: Maid Aibleen (Viola Davis) is invisible to the white women in The Help
She notices that the privileged white women of Mississippi are happy to allow their children to be brought up by black maids, but don’t regard the ‘help’ as fit to use an indoor bathroom.
Skeeter decides to write a book about racism, but there’s a catch: she’ll need the help of the maids, who will have to become whistle-blowers, and they’re reluctant to step out of line — especially with racist employers such as Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Stockett’s novel was written from three perspectives: Skeeter’s and two maids, the stoical Aibileen (Viola Davis) and the sharp-tongued Minny (Octavia Spencer).
In the film, Aibileen’s viewpoint carries the biggest emotional punch, thanks to fine acting by Davis as the middle-aged maid who first spills the beans, at a risk to her livelihood and, indeed, her life.
It is Davis’s performance that gives this movie a chance of winning an Oscar.
For her part, the talented Stone gracefully allows the black characters to take over the movie, as they should. It’s not her fault her romantic sub-plot is insultingly perfunctory, or that she isn’t even allowed a climactic show-down with the villainess. By that time, we’re more interested in the black characters.
However, it’s a major flaw in a film supposedly giving a voice to black maids that so much of it is seen from the perspective of a white woman with little to lose.
The picture comes across as a too simplified, sanitised study of the civil rights movement. The Help is hobbled by a dogged reluctance to address the grimmer realities of life for black people in the South.
Writer-director Tate Taylor, who is white, allows his affection for old civilities to give the film a nostalgic glow, a cosiness, that takes alarming precedence over the black characters’ stories.
Far too much of The Help resembles a po-faced version of Hairspray, a comedy that parodied the self-congratulatory smugness of movies like this, in which white people ‘discover’ racism and decide to cure everyone of it.
Still, a lot of people are going to like The Help enough to ignore its crudities and unfulfilled potential. The proof of that is that it has already made over $150?million at the box office.