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The Independent Critic

Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Cicely Tyson, Allison Janney, Dana Ivey and Sissy Spacek
Tate Taylor
Kathryn Stockett, Tate Taylor
Rated PG-13
137 Mins.
Walt Disney Studios
2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack Extras: Deleted scenes; Mary J. Blige music video of "The Living Proof;" "The Making of The Help;" and "In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi."

 "The Help" Review 
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It has always been difficult for me to believe.

In my lifetime, MY lifetime, blacks and whites could not use the same bathrooms, eat in the same restaurants, work in the same locations or live in the same neighborhoods. It amazes me that in my lifetime, MY lifetime, hatred for blacks has been so strong that crosses have burned in front yards, mob crowds have beaten black children and black children have had to enter a school under police protection, when police would protect them, while risking their own lives simply to receive an education.

I truly can't imagine it.

There are many films that have addressed the civil rights era, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Hairspray to Mississippi Burning and countless others. These films have ranged from bloody awful to Oscar winners, from fearlessly bold social statements to patronizing or condescending moralizing essays.

The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor based upon a book by Taylor's childhood friend Kathryn Stockett, is not a brilliant social statement nor is it to be dismissed as yet another "white do-gooder" film despite the fact that it does seem to overly emphasize that angle of its story. There is something to be said for finding a way to both educate and entertain, inform and inspire an audience. Let's face it. We don't go to the movies to be preached at, so it's no small task to create a film about racism while still managing to hold an audience's attention.

The Help is a good film. The Help is an entertaining and inspiring and, yes, even a wee bit of an informative film. The Help will make you laugh, without feeling guilty about it, but The Help will also have you leaving the theater contemplating how much society has changed in the last 40-50 years ... AND how much farther we have to go.

Skeeter (Emma Stone, Easy A and Crazy, Stupid, Love) is fresh out of Ole Miss and desperate to find her way into the journalistic world at the local newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. She has her eyes set on New York, but she knows she'd best get her a job and prove that she can be a writer if she ever hopes to get there. She lands herself a household cleaning column in the local paper, she's proposed a story to a New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) about the local maids of Jackson, Mississippi. With the Jim Crow laws firmly in place, getting the maids to talk is no small task. It was illegal.

Again, I can't imagine.

Eventually, Aibileen (Viola Davis, Doubt) agrees to talk along with the hilariously sassy Minny (Octavia Spencer). When these two start talking, ain't nothing going to stop them. Before long, all of Jackson is in an uproar even as local Junior League president Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) sets out to get a bill passed requiring families to build a separate bathroom for their help. Then, there's Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life), who ends up hiring Minny when the mouthy housekeeper chooses self-respect over self-preservation.

Both Taylor and Stockett grew up in Jackson, and their familiarity with local customs, traditions and dialect helps to create characters that feel rich and authentic and, at times, too achingly real. The film's strongest performance may very well come from Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, a woman whose presence practically personifies a sort of Southern genteel evil that is so relentless and so matter-of-fact that it's hard to believe such a person could exist. While most actresses would have given such a character flashes of understanding or humanity, Howard seems to be fully in touch with the fact that this woman was so utterly clueless about her evil that for her this was her humanity. Howard's performance is uncomfortable, because it should be.

Right alongside Howard would be the rather incredible performances of the always marvelous Viola Davis and the breakout performance of Octavia Spencer. Davis gives the film an astounding emotional depth while giving Aibileen a tremendous dignity and quiet pride. Aibileen is no fool ... she knows that she's not only risking her job by speaking to Skeeter, but also her life. Davis embodies a woman who is simultaneously afraid yet determined to walk through that fear, a steely and proud woman who seems to inherently know that if she does not talk to Skeeter her voice might be silenced forever. Spencer's performance is less emotionally resonant, yet no less vital to the film. Spencer's Minny is vibrant and sassy and funny, but her character feels a bit more like the type of black character we've come to expect in these films. That said, Spencer makes the most of it all and plays beautifully alongside both Davis and Stone.

As the lead, Emma Stone sort of exudes that idealism that often defined the actions of college students and young adults during the civil rights era. Her character feels lighter here, at times out of place. Yet, wasn't that often the case when idealistic white college students and young adults would find themselves doing voter registrations, joining picket lines, sitting at counters and such? This was in the infancy of America's turn towards equality, and there's an edge of naivete with Skeeter that just feels appropriate for the character as she starts off with a sort of wide-eyed wonder and slowly grows into herself and the movement.

Supporting performances by Sissy Spacek, as Hilly's mother, and Allison Janney, as Skeeter's mother, add additional heft to the film's excellent ensemble cast. Tate Taylor, a relative newcomer with only one lightly seen film to his credit, does a nice job of managing the material and balancing its lighter and darker moments. While his love for Stockett's material is evident, the film could have used just a wee bit of editing to weed out a bit more of the film's extraneous material from its nearly 2 1/2 hour running time.

Production values are solid throughout the film, with Sharen Davis (Dreamgirls) giving the film's costuming a period appropriate vibrancy and Mark Ricker's (Julie & Julia) production design exudes the expected southern charm without negating the underlying tension. Stephen Goldblatt's camera work is terrific, along with Thomas Newman's original score.

Some will accuse The Help of caving in to the "great white hope" storyline, while others will be troubled by its rather fundamental treatment of incredibly complex and continuing societal issues. While all of these are valid points, The Help works beautifully as an entertaining film about a troubling period in American history and the people who were impacted by it. Without minimizing the struggle, The Help optimistically emphasizes the hope in a way that will make you laugh often, perhaps shed a tear or two and leave you pondering these people and their lives as you leave the theater.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic