For all its merits, including ushering a rare socio-racial theme into the multiplex and offering a polished watchability in the dregs of the August movie crop, The Help goes down all too easily. In this tale of the immoral inequality of Jim Crow life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early ’60s, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, we expect The Help to be riled up and full of righteous indignation, but the filmmaking is so clean and tidy it feels like a breezy combo of TV’s Mad Men—all pristine retro décor and surfaces—and the Technicolor shallows of The Color Purple. Facsimiles to the crude realities of racial tensions in the South, especially in Mississippi around the time of the civil rights uprising, are tenuous at best in this all-too-Hollywoodized sanitation job.
Even so, The Help manages to cast a light on a shameful chapter of American life from the not-so-distant past—and gives an empathetic view of the particular dynamic between casually, smilingly sadistic Southern housewives exerting evils on their black maids—as a pattern passed down through generations. A subplot of forcing maids to use nonwhite toilets is as much a metaphor of conventional sadism, a symbol of the larger bad, as it is an explicit injustice.
On the acting front, young Emma Stone brings her by now usual charm and focus to the role as the writer who brings the black-versus-white story to the larger forum of public attention. But the real screen stealers are the quietly and deeply expressive Viola Davis, as the long-suffering maid/child-rearer who steps up to uncover the truth, and the surprisingly vulnerable Jessica Chastain (familiar from her haunting work as Brad Pitt’s wife in The Tree of Life). She plays the Southern wife on the outskirts of the inner circle of accepted racism, ostracized in a way tangentially connected to the life of her no-bull maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer, who also puts in a plucky performance).
On the white-woman dark side, Bryce Dallas Howard digs into her nasty role as Hilly, aka Villain Number One. But her character is drawn with a cartoony broadness, which helps turn the movie into a Movie, something we can get in and out of like a swimming pool, detached from the ugly bane of history and ongoing racial tensions in America.