Review: Parallel to the public struggle for civil rights in the 1960s was a conflict over race and privilege inside genteel Southern homes.
In Jackson in the early 1960s, life is pleasant for the community's white elite. The white-gloves-and-pearls Junior Leaguers throw luncheons without having to fill a coffee cup. These women organize cotillions that their black servants catered, dress handsomely in outfits they ironed and drink cocktails on patios they swept.
In return, the town's good ladies pay their help enough to finance a shack and bus fare. They organize sanctimonious fundraisers for "the poor, starving children of Africa" and provide their maids with separate-but-equal toilet facilities -- sweatbox latrines in the garage. To them, the idea of a white family and its black help sharing in-house bathrooms is a horror beyond contemplation. It never occurs to them that the people they consider appliances might be as good as (and perhaps better than) they are.
The superlative Viola Davis, a supporting actress Oscar nominee for "Doubt," gets her first-ever headlining role in a stellar cast including Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson.
Davis plays Aibileen, a soft-spoken, dignified maid who loves the white children in her care like a mother. Aibileen had no economic advantages and limited education; nevertheless she's a woman of quiet wisdom and substance. She finds camaraderie with her feisty friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer, a fireball of madcap comic energy), and comfort in tending children, but laments never having enough time for her own son.
At the dawn of the civil rights era, naive, newly minted Ole Miss grad Skeeter Phelan (Stone) returns to Jackson in hopes of launching a journalism career (another quaint period touch in this handsomely detailed retro production). She lands a job writing the cleaning advice column for the local paper. Never having scrubbed a pot, she turns to Aibileen for guidance. Gradually she realizes that the domestic servants, with their own untold stories and insights into every affluent family's dirty laundry, could be her ticket to a book deal.
She begins interviewing the maids for her tell-all, obscuring the details a bit to protect her sources from reprisal. She's decent and sympathetic to Aibileen's plight, but no "freedom now" revolutionary. Skeeter helps others as a means of helping herself, true empathy arriving afterward when she realizes how much the maids who trust her to chronicle their stories have risked. "The Help" avoids the trap of recasting a story of black struggle into the story of a white savior.
Through the maids' stories we learn the petty tyrannies of vain, racist society women. The worst of the lot is Miss Hilly (Howard), a wasp queen whose icy condescension and lemon-slice smile demean her servants at every turn. Observing all from a wry distance is Skeeter's mother (Janney), who considers marrying off her 23-year-old spinster the world's most urgent business. "Your eggs are dying," she scolds. "Would it kill you to go on a date?"
Stockett's book gave some attention to the political underpinnings of Mississippi racism. It's one of the few failings of director/screenwriter Tate Taylor's sturdy adaptation that the larger context of the drama plays so small a part. We briefly glimpse news of martyred activists on black-and-white TVs, but the most important social advance in 20th-century America is seen largely through a domestic keyhole. It wasn't all mean girls and good girls.
Still, in this season of robots, aliens and superheroes, "The Help" is a blue-ribbon achievement. It has a mature appreciation of human truth. Late in the film Skeeter grows to understand the role that her own family's black housekeeper played in making her the woman she became, able to reach across barriers of class and race to write honestly about her region's troubled legacy. The film could have ended there; wisely it continues. The bittersweet coda belongs to Davis as Aibileen, moving toward an uncertain future with her head held high.