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The Help ***

The Help

Is it worth $10? Yes

In Jackson, Mississippi, in the early ‘60s, Confederate flags hung high. Men were manly, women were feminine, and African-Americans were second-class citizens. “Separate but equal” was both a rallying cry for white people and an egregious mistruth, as racial equality was an impossibility in the bigoted Jim Crow south.

Like many civil rights polemics “The Help” is rife with heartache and hatred, but it also carries a sense of hope for both its white and African-American heroines. It is also, as it was at the core of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, a story about female empowerment and finding personal justice in an unjust world.

At the center of the story is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who returns home from Ole Miss to learn that the maid who raised her, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), is no longer with her family. Skeeter takes a job writing a housekeeping column for the Jackson Journal newspaper, but dreams bigger. Good for her.

When an editor (Mary Steenburgen) in New York tells Skeeter to come up with an original book idea, Skeeter fancies telling the stories of Jackson’s African-American maids. It’s a fine idea but a dangerous one: Medgar Evers’ murder happens in the middle of the film, and all forms of law and order are pasty white.

But Skeeter perseveres and soon has the help of Aibileen (Viola Davis), who works for Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who used to work for Skeeter’s friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her mother (Sissy Spacek) but is now employed by social pariah Celia (Jessica Chastain).

The Help

It’s all very secret, but not melodramatic. In fact, director Tate Taylor is careful not to overdo the bursting racism and instead offers a story focused on women trying to make a better life for themselves. Because he gets such strong performances from Stone, who proves drama is not beyond her scope, and Davis, who can do anything, the film is effective and moving in all the right ways.

At one point Aibileen points out an interesting irony: That African-America maids raise white children for mothers who either don’t know how or don’t care to on their own. The maids change diapers, prepare food and regularly hug and kiss the children. This is expected of them. But at the same time the maids aren’t allowed to use white bathrooms, libraries, etc. It’d be laughably dumb if it weren’t so painfully true.

To his credit Taylor points out this white idiocy but doesn’t dwell on it, simply because we must accept that this is part of life in Jackson and move on. Skeeter, however, doesn’t accept it, and because she doesn’t the story moves forward briskly and with purpose.

Is “The Help” good enough for awards consideration? It is the type of socially important picture that Hollywood enjoys feeling good about itself for liking (“Crash”), but it lacks the hard-hitting punch needed to make it great. Still, it’s a solid drama with strong performances and it deserves to be seen by those who have and have not read the book.

Did you know?
Taylor and Stockett grew up together in Jackson, and have been best friends since they were five years old.