Emma Stone and Viola Davis bring “The Help” to the big screen with poignant results

The Help, which opens today, is a blunt, poignant, yet charming look at the uneasy relationship between black maids and their white employers in the pre-Freedom Riders Deep South. Through a sensitive, well-crafted script by Tate Taylor and outstanding performances from a nearly all-female cast: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, The Help manages to convey both the heart and heartlessness of a relationship that many Americans rarely thought about until recently.

The movie is told from the point of view Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone), who is well on her way to Southern spinsterhood, being an unmarried, recent college graduate. Returning home from Ol’ Miss to figure out how to make a living as a writer, Skeeter reunites with her childhood friends, led by the uptight racist, Hilly Holbrook (Ron Howard‘s daughter, Bryce).

Although from the same social class, Skeeter is clearly not one of these women: young, entitled hens with Junior League memberships and no ambitions beyond being invited to the right luncheons and bridge games. Skeeter takes a job writing a domestic advice column for the local paper, but because her family has had maid her whole life, she doesn’t know the first thing about housekeeping. Skeeter can’t ask her beloved maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson) for help with recipes and cleaning tips because her mother, Charlotte (Janney) suddenly fired her while Skeeter was away at college.

Meanwhile, Hilly is petitioning the state of Mississippi to make it illegal for the “help” to use the bathrooms in their white employers’ homes. After Hilly builds a “nice” outside toilet for her maid, Minny Jackson, (Spencer), she is followed, lemming-like, by Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) which heaps another indignation on her already grievous but reticent maid, Aibileen Clark (Davis).

Opposed to her friends’ odious noblesse oblige, but too steeped in Southern gentility to call them out on their racism, Skeeter is an outlier passing as a Junior Leaguer. And she has better things to do. Skeeter enlists Aibileen’s domestic knowledge for her column, in the hope that the writing experience will entice a New York City publisher (Mary Steenburgen) into hiring her.

When she’s told she’ll have to come up with something meatier, Skeeter pitches writing a book about the experiences of black maids in the South, in their own voices, starting with Aibileen. Fully aware of the dangers, Aibileen doesn’t dare share stories about employers. She tells Skeeter no one is going to risk talking to her about the white children they raise, the way they’re treated, or how their paltry pay can be terminated on a whim.

But after certain events change Aibileen’s mind, she slowly begins to document her life, not just for Skeeter, but for herself. She’s soon joined by Minny, who’s been fired by Hilly for using the wrong bathroom. Minny’s contempt and mistrust of white people is palpable, but so is her outspoken spirit. Her subsequent act of revenge on Hilly is so horrifying (and hilarious) it’s best left unsaid here.

Soon, the other maids in Aibileen’s neighborhood come forward, giving Skeeter more than enough stories to fill her book, which has to be published anonymously. When the book goes to print, accusations erupt as Hilly and the women of Jackson begin to suspect they are the people in the book.

In satisfying Disney fashion, Skeeter gets her job, Aibileen finds her voice (as a writer as well), Hilly suffers some, but not enough, humiliation, and Minny learns that not all white people are cruel, thanks to her new job working for the town pariah, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a kind-hearted ditz married to Hilly’s ex-boyfriend and living a different kind of marginalize life because of her white trashiness.

If you see this movie for one reason, and one reason only, let it be the amazing Viola Davis. As Aibileen, she brings the perfect amount of bitterness, weariness and stoic heartbreak in her every move and word. If Ms. Davis doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for this film, something is very wrong with the system.

I hope the same will go for Octavia Spencer as Minny. With her defiant eyes, nuanced performance, and physical presence, Spencer’s Minny is a woman the white world has tried to make small, but simply can’t.

Emma Stone continues to amaze as a young actress whose self-possessed nature and mature intelligence is rare among her peers. Skeeter is a woman slightly ahead of her time and Stone plays her with just enough awareness and righteousness to make her fit the era without resorting to modern grrl power. With unruly curls and comfortable shoes, Stone downplays her looks for the role, but you never really buy the premise that Skeeter can’t get a date.

Adapted from the eponymous novel by Kathryn Stockett, Taylor (Pretty Ugly People, Chicken Party) tackles the daunting task of adapting a book that spent over 100 weeks on The New York Times Best
Sellers list. Aside from risking ire from the novel’s loyal, Oprah-skewing fans and conveying the tone and attitudes of the day, he
also had to please the author, a childhood friend, and tell an important story in an entertaining way. I’m happy to say Taylor delivered something worthy of Viola Davis.

Choice roles for African-American actresses are few and far between. Many of them wanted to play Aibileen despite the film’s touchy subjects of Jim Crow laws and bigotry. But Davis told Entertainment Weekly, “It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?’ I think it should be, ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and gives the f–king performance of her life.'” Word.

Watch The Help featurette below:

The Help opens today in the US and in Canada.