I have it on good authority that Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel The Help is trash; writer-director Tate Taylor’s film of it is somewhat better than that, especially in terms of the enjoyable laughter it generates. However, it is disappointingly shallow regarding life in the South—here, Jackson, Mississippi—during the momentous, tumultuous 1960s. Budding young journalist “Skeeter” Phelan, beautifully played by Emma Stone, is a white woman who is surreptitiously orchestrating a book in which African-American nanny/maids detail their hardships and sacrifices, in plush households for meager pay, thereby exposing American racism from a novel perspective. Alas, I have difficulty with a film that relegates the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers to a television insert while the main action pursues a genteel, marshmallow-comfy portrait of assorted social and domestic tragedies interwoven with TV-level situation-comedy.
Although an intermittently moving one, this is not a serious film; it makes little attempt to contextualize its interesting, even absorbing plot in the American Civil Rights movement—and without such contextualization, it adds up to very little.
It does, however, proffer a variety of good performances despite the usual emphasis on white experiences at the expense of black experiences—an odd tack to take, given the film’s ostensible theme. Paramount is Viola Davis’s flexible, soul-scorching portrayal of Aibileen Clark, the first maid to succumb to Skeeter’s dangerous interviews. Her performance is full of compelling heartbreak. Normally an atrocious actress, Sissy Spacek takes a funny supporting turn, and Chris Lowell is excellent as Skeeter’s unimaginative suitor who ultimately cannot give up the security blanket of his racism: one of the few revelatory roles assigned to a white character in this film. On the other hand, Cicely Tyson, who never could act, and Allison Janney are inept in other roles.
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