New college grad Skeeter Phelan comes home to Jackson, bent on starting a career as a writer. Her friends welcome her back, but Skeeter’s changed in ways that they have not. For one thing, Mississippi in the 1960’s was a hotbed of racial segregation, and Skeeter’s no longer comfortable with that. Her first summer home, she observes the way her friends (mis)treat their black maids, and, gradually, convinces some of the maids to talk to her about their lives, about which Skeeter knows very little. Soon, she has a publisher interested in compiling those interviews into a book.
The Help is written and directed by Tate Taylor, who elicited fine performances from his primarily female cast. Viola Davis, as the maid Aibilene, is the lynchpin that holds the story together, showing depths of carefully modulated dignity, strength, and emotion in her dealings with employers and friends alike. The other standout is Jessica Chastain, who plays the white trash bombshell who snagged the town’s most eligible bachelor and is shunned by everyone but Skeeter. Her ability to project vulnerability and honesty without pathos is awesome. Bryce Dallas Howard, in the thankless role of beautiful, dyed-in-the-wool racist and social leader Hilly, personifies the ugliness of the racial situation with aplomb. Emma Stone represents those looked their consciences square in the face and took up the banner in the civil rights movement, and as Skeeter, shows how much courage was necessary in that dangerous environment.
The Help has taken a lot of critical flak from folks who have an ax to grind about how it presents the issue of segregation. But, first and foremost, The Help is a movie, based upon a novel, not a sociological treatise. It’s intelligent, thought provoking entertainment. It shows how things were, and in many cases, still are, and if it brings awareness to the minds of people who weren’t yet born during the 60’s, it’s done its job.