The Help ✮✮✮✮

Separate But Equal

by Glenn Lovell

Part conscience-searing history lesson, part shamelessly manipulative melodrama, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller sinks its teeth in early and never lets go. Despite a few glaring missteps — the result mostly of shrinking a novel to feature length — this rewarding ensemble piece is easily the best American film of the year thus far.

Yes, it has a pat, old-fashioned feel. Yes, it’s a bit smug in its safe liberal rectitude. Yes, it contains the kind of cathartic, crowd-pleasing moments we remember from “In the Heat of the Night,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and other Oscar-winners about a time when African Americans sat at the back of the bus and suffered the daily humiliation of drinking fountains and toilets “For Whites Only.”

But don’t let any of this dissuade you. “The Help” works as both a stinging indictment of Jim Crow segregation and a showcase for several standout performances, most notably by Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard and the suddenly everywhere Jessica Chastain (“The Debt”), here cast as the dim but good-natured platinum blonde Celia, who must be taught to not cross the color line.

Spencer, Davis: Sisters in adversity

We’re in Jackson, Miss., 1962-’63, where segregation is still a stain on the American Dream. In the course of the narrative, news will arrive of the assassinations of two civil-rights standard-bearers: Medgar Evers and J.F.K. The focus is on women of different social strata — the uppity, white-gloved women of the Junior League and the quietly disgusted black women who, in a gussied up version of antebellum slavery, serve as the seen-but-not-heard domestics.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) straddles both groups. She’s a reluctant member of the women’s bridge club led by Hilly Holbrook (Howard), but has no time for either the group’s inane chit-chat or overtly racist treatment of their maids. Skeeter fancies herself a “serious writer” but it’s her job at the local paper, writing a cleaning advice column, that causes her to seek out the sage Aibileen (Davis) and leads to a book of interviews “about what it’s like to work for white people.” Further, it causes Skeeter to reopen an old wounds, in particular the sudden disappearance of the family’s longtime maid, Charlotte (Cicely Tyson).

What happened to her? Skeeter demands of her mother (Allison Janney), who, battling cancer, would just as soon not discuss the matter. “She raised me!” Skeeter shouts, giving voice to a greater truth about a generation of southern white children reared by women who weren’t allowed to sit at the family table or use the family bathroom.

Given the inflammatory racial situation ‒ and hard economic truth that 95 cents an hour working for abusive whites is all a black women in Jackson could expect at this time ‒ Skeeter’s project is hardly embraced. Eventually, Aibileen, having suffered one indignity too many, consents to being interviewed. When pressed about her involvement, she reasons, “We ain’t doing civil rights, we’re just telling stories, like they really happened.” Fired on a trumped-up charge by her employer, the outspoken Minny (Spencer) soon adds her voice to the oral history.

Will others join in? Will Skeeter’s mother finally fess up about Charlotte? And what will the vindictive Hilly and the “bridge ladies” say when they find out about the book? These questions and others are resolved in a fairly predictable but satisfying manner. Still, one has to be impressed by the scope and look of this film. Taylor has not only shoehorned in much of the book’s narrative, he’s headed off some of the inevitable criticism that “The Help” is yet another variation on “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers,” those patronizing movies about bleeding heart liberals showing black children the way. When asked to add her voice to the chorus of dissent, Minny launches into Skeeter. “Just why do you think we need your help?!” she demands.

Yes, this is more glossy Hollywood melodrama than docudrama, and as such it resolves in a cascade of juicy, she-finally-got-her-comeuppance moments. Aibileen, in a gasp-worthy confrontation, finally gets to tell Hilly, “You’re a Godless woman. Ain’t you tired, Miss Hilly? Ain’t you tired?” Hilly’s mother (Sissy Spacek) is supposed to be suffering from dementia. She is and she isn’t, depending on the demands of the narrative. As for Skeeter’s new boyfriend, Stuart (Chris Lowell), his sudden defection to the other side leaves us scratching our head, wondering, “What! Did I miss something?” And what to make of Mary Steenburgen’s stereotypical New York agent? Cigarette in one hand, cocktail in the other, she counsels over the phone, “Go find your life, Miss Skeeter.”

These are minor quibbles, however, in what is, overall, an important movie about a time many of us would just as soon not remember. It’s certainly a film that cries out to be shown in every American high school. Do I hear Oscar calling? Expect richly deserved nominations for Davis as the stalwart, quietly rebellious Aibileen; Chastain as the breathy, Monroe-like outcast Celia; and Spencer as the intimidating Minny, a force-of-nature who, in one of the most hilariously crowd-pleasing moment I can remember in a movie, confesses to “a terrible awful.”

THE HELP ✮✮✮✮ With Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cisely Tyson. Directed, scripted by Tate Taylor. 146 min. PG-13 (for profanity, adult situations)

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