‘The Help’ helps understand the help

“The Help” is a stirring film that tackles black-white relations in the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Director Tate Taylor surprisingly turns what should be a disheartening story into a heart-warming affair.

Even though Emma Stone has top billing of this fictional drama, it’s Viola Davis as the ever-smiling Aibileen Clark and Octavia Spencer as the sass-mouthed Minny Jackson that steal the spotlight, one scene at a time.

It’s 1960s Jackson, Miss., and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) has returned home after graduating from Ole Miss.

An epiphany during a bridge game and the encouragement from a New York publisher inspires Skeeter to write a book from the point of view of African American housemaids.

Skeeter is at odds in the world she grew up in — her cancer-sickened mother (Allison Janney) doesn’t understand why Skeeter won’t make an effort to find a boyfriend. Her friends have grown into society girls mimicking the lifestyle set by their mothers — land a husband, have lots of children and make sure the maid properly polishes the silverware.

Aibileen is the first maid to open up to Skeeter, sharing her lifetime of pain.

This is much to the dismay of her best friend, Minny, who turns out to be the biggest pleasure to watch on screen. Spencer transforms her character into a force to be reckoned with and proves to be a good match for her nemesis (and former boss) Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Holbrook is the queen bee of the society girls, but Minny manages to serve her just desserts.

When Minny ventures away from the camera, it’s Jessica Chastain (“Tree of Life”) who picks up the slack as a sweet-but-a-bit-ditzy Celia Foote. But the laughs don’t overtake the message, and “The Help” comes to a head when its main characters have to decide if they are willing to rock the boat or stay complacent with their roles.

For the maids, they must decide if they are willing to risk their jobs, and their lives, for speaking against their white employers.

The film is elevated into a higher realm of storytelling during a chilling scene when Aibileen is ordered off a bus because a black man is shot — except the driver doesn’t use the words black.

“The Help” isn’t perfect — more often than not the film seems like a civics lesson rather than a sentimental piece of work, and too many happy endings don’t accurately portray the struggles of those who fought (and still fight) for civil rights.

Directed by Tate Taylor. 146 minutes.

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