Aug. 10 (Bloomberg) -- In “The Help,” set in segregated Mississippi in 1963, a prim young social-climber named Hilly tells her bridge-club members that all homes should have separate bathrooms for black maids.
The proposal is greeted with casual acceptance, as if someone had just suggested they refill a pitcher of iced tea.
That ingrained racism is the backdrop for the movie based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller about an aspiring writer who interviews black maids about their demeaning experiences working for white families.
Though the central character is a young white woman -- rising star Emma Stone delivers a spunky performance as Skeeter, the rebellious Ole Miss graduate who would rather write than attend bridge-club meetings -- the heart of the film comes from two courageous maids wonderfully portrayed by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.
The story might strike some as a watered-down version of Deep South bigotry in the early 1960s. And Skeeter does seem a little too good to be true.
“The Help” doesn’t aspire to be a comprehensive history of racial discrimination, though. It’s more like “Driving Miss Daisy,” a movie that reflects the times through personal stories and relationships.
It helps that writer/director Tate Taylor and Stockett are childhood friends who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1970s. While race relations in the state had undergone dramatic changes by then, Taylor clearly has a deep understanding of the time and attitudes portrayed in Stockett’s book.
In the film, Skeeter returns home after graduating from college and gets a job writing a cleaning-tips column for the local newspaper. What she really wants to do is write a book for a hotshot New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) about what it’s like to be a black maid in Jackson.
Skeeter starts by interviewing Aibileen (Davis), a maid who has helped raise 17 children for various white families while mourning the loss of her only son in a freak accident. She also talks to Hilly’s housekeeper Minny (Spencer), a fabulous cook who gets fired for using the family bathroom in the house where she works.
After Minny gets revenge by serving her a surprise-ingredient pie, Hilly tries to blackball her from getting another job. But Minny ends up working for an eccentric blonde (Jessica Chastain, with just the right mix of zaniness and sadness) who’s also a social outcast.
Allison Janney is terrific as Skeeter’s mom, who wants her daughter to marry a proper Southern gentleman. Also excelling in small roles are Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s outspoken mother and Cicely Tyson as Skeeter’s elderly family maid, whose sudden departure makes the young woman suspicious.
The film includes references to real 1963 events such as the murder of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson and the Washington rally at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
But it’s the fictional characters created by Stockett and vividly brought to the screen that make “The Help” so moving.
“The Help,” from Walt Disney Pictures, opens today across the U.S. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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