The first shot of The Help is of a white girl’s hands. Skeeter (Emma Stone), the progressive post-grad daughter of an aging society belle (Alison Janney), is transcribing the illicit confessions of maid Aibileen (Viola Davis), in the hopes of writing an expose on the experiences of those like her in the Deep South of the early 1960s. Already alarm bells should be ringing: Film history is littered with stories of the black experience told from a black perspective. The Help could have easily become another Cry Freedom, in which the story of Steve Biko is cut short so that we may learn instead about the caucasians who escaped South Africa and spread his tale. (Hooray for white people!)
But even with the ubiquitous, predictably winning Stone in the role, Skeeter never becomes too prominent. This is the story of Aibileen and those like her, and the film—as well as presumably the Kathryn Stockett bestseller from which it’s culled—makes sure the people who it’s about actually take up most of the real estate.
Granted, this is still an earnest history lesson with Chris Columbus’ name in the producing credits. But even with the weighty subject and the just-off-screen inclusion of Emmett Till’s murder, The Help never takes itself too seriously. Davis, an excellent though often humorless actress who couldn’t even have fun in junk like Law Abiding Citizen, is tasked with holding down the somber end. But the film is more aligned, tonally, with co-star Octavia Spencer, one of those who’s-that? movie-stealing performances as a more animated maid with a unique way with avenging against the token hissable racist played to the hilt by Bryce Dallas Howard.
So free-spirited is The Help it stretches what should be a quickie joke about someone eating a shit pie into a major plot point, while the release of the book itself—containing the uninhibited revelations of scores of mistreated black staffers—is treated by the populace more as trashy gossip than a civil rights milestone. The Help isn’t perfect, although its greatest crime may be putting doppelgangers Howard and Jessica Chastain—credible as a bubbleheaded Marilyn Monroe type±in the same movie. That’s like casting both Christian Slater and Stephen Dorff.