In The Help, Searching for Depth in the Deep South

The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 'The Help' is uneven, but stellar performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, well, help.

Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in 'The Help.'

If fried chicken were really as restorative as the new movie The Help seems to think, Jim Crow laws probably wouldn’t have originated in the South. But in the world of Kathryn Stockett’s novel (and now film), Southern stereotypes are given a retro, glossy sheen, and ingrained racial tension can be resolved by a plucky white debutante’s first novel.

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In the real world, the chances of an earnest deb resolving the racial tensions in 1960s Jackson, Miss., with her first writing project would have been pretty slim. But if you can suspend your disbelief that a cute 22 year-old had the power to succeed with civil rights where Martin Luther King and President Kennedy failed, The Help actually has a lot to offer.

Ms. Stockett’s story follows Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent graduate of Ole Miss who returns to her hometown of Jackson to find that her girlfriends have calcified into terrible approximations of their mothers. They’ve been raised by strong black women, but instead of appreciating that work, they are now employing (and mistreating) those same women in their own homes.

The ringleader of this group is Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who prances around town spearheading a disturbing initiative to get white families to build separate toilets outside their homes for “the help.”

Disgusted by her peers’s racism, Skeeter decides to publish the stories of some of her friends’ maids in an effort to jumpstart her journalism career and try to achieve some justice for these women.

Inserting a white woman into these maids’ stories is a strange rhetorical trick, which is partly why Ms. Stockett’s novel earned plenty of critics when it debuted in 2009. But that didn’t slow its rise up the best-sellers list, or get in the way of wooing a stellar cast (despite the fact that director Tate Taylor only has one feature under his belt and got the rights because he is a childhood friend of Ms. Stocketts).

And the uneven racial terrain of the film likely won’t stand in the way of multiple nominations for some truly outstanding performances throughout the movie. Unfortunately, Ms. Stone’s is not one of them. It’s not entirely her fault. There is something incredibly unsettling about needing a white socialite narrator to tell the story of abused black women, and Emma Stone does not possess the acting nuance to pull it off. In The Help the sexy, raspy voice and adorable delivery that served her well in light teen films like Easy A and Superbad just aren’t enough. She’s in far over her head here, and so are the many young women who prance around the screen like they’re trying on their mother’s vintage clothes with just a dash of period-piece racism added to the look.

More powerful is how well Viola Davis (as Aibileen Clark) and Octavia Spencer (as Minny Jackson) take to their roles as maids who endure the difficulties of growing up black and poor in the South.

It’s hard to avoid falling into stereotypes when playing such a stock character type, but Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer expertly draw Aibileen and Minny as smart, agile women struggling to survive in a culture pit against them. Their wisdom and cooking skills may be mystically overdrawn, but these women can make you believe anything. Only Cicely Tyson borders on mammyism as the elderly maid who raised Skeeter, but she brings a strong emotive tug into each of her short scenes.

In general, the older actresses fair better than their younger counterparts. Sissy Spacek has a blast as Miss Hilly’s mother, who often uses bouts of Alzheimer’s to her advantage. And Allison Janney does her best as Skeeter’s thinly drawn mother. Jessica Chastain is the only young actress who manages to own her character, instilling a bombshell trophy wife with humor and depth.

In contrast, Ms. Stone has been given some strange direction to play up her awkward side. She uncomfortably bounces through scenes in a series of improbably awful wigs, and the character of Skeeter often appears naïve to the point of undermining her own efforts.

Which might actually be the most optimistic thing about The Help. Maybe next time these black actresses won’t need a white narrator to get their films made.

Running time 137 minutes

Written and directed by
Tate Taylor

Starring Emma Stone,
Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer


In The Help, Searching for Depth in the Deep South