Based in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, The Help is set smack dab in the middle of the U.S. civil rights movement. With its history of slavery, racism and segregation, and with the election of its first black President, the U.S. (and Hollywood) is still dealing with this very painful issue.
The film is based on the 2009 novel written by Kathryn Stockett. The author owned the film rights to her own story and so was able to install a newcomer as the film’s director, her friend Tate Taylor, and so, you can be sure that, for better or worse, the film stays true to the book.
Emma Stone plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a wide-eyed, college grad hoping to make her mark as a journalist. She starts out in small-town Mississippi, writing a “homemaker hints” column for the local paper. For inspiration, she turns to the family maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis) for help. Skeeter quickly becomes interested in the Aibileen and the other local black maids’ situation.
Meanwhile, the local “bad girl” Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her gaggle of snooty friends seems determined to make the maids’ lives more miserable than they already are by instituting a “home help sanitation initiative”, which basically calls for separate outdoor toilets for the maids.
This sets the stage for Skeeter to encourage Aibileen and the other maids to tell their stories, which Skeeter hopes to publish in a New York magazine and get her writing career off the ground.
The script, acting and direction are all fine here. There are plenty of laughs, poignant moments and places to pause and think, as you would expect given the subject matter. Emma Stone is fine as Skeeter and the two main maids, played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, are excellent.
The only down side is the overall tone of the script and its premise. Everything felt a bit too pat and easily wrapped up. As if one idealistic young white girl could jump in to the Deep South and solve years of prejudice by just ruffling a few feathers. It also felt like the script was somewhat condescending to the black maids who, it seems, were unable to tell their own stories themselves, but needed the help of the perky Skeeter to give them a voice.
The result is entertaining, somewhat thought-provoking and a bit flawed.