THE HELP (Tate Taylor, 2011)
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling 2009 debut novel, The Help is an overly melodramatic, emotionally manipulative film about the relationship between the white homeowners of Jackson, Mississippi, and their black maids. Set in the 1960s just as the civil rights movement was beginning to gain ground, the plot centers on a recent white college graduate named Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) who decides that something must be done about the way the whites treat the blacks in her town. An aspiring writer, Skeeter tries to convince black maids Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) to share their stories for a book that a New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) might be interested in, but the women are terrified that speaking out could cost them their livelihood as well as jeopardize their physical safety. But as things get worse in Jackson, led by such snooty rich women as Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), and even Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), the truth starts becoming more and more difficult to suppress. Adapted and directed by Tate Taylor, The Help undercuts what it is trying to accomplish by making the conflict, well, as black and white as possible, overplaying the sympathy card and laying on the white liberal guilt. While the white men in the film are all powerless cardboard cutouts, there are virtually no black men at all, save for the local preacher (David Oyelowo ) and a counterman (Nelsan Ellis). The only white Jackson housewife who doesn’t treat her maid like a slave, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), is a ditzy blonde who can’t take care of herself. Taylor (Pretty Ugly People), who was born and raised in Jackson and is a close friend of Stockett’s, offers the same scenes repeated over and over, going on for nearly two and a half hours. Nominated for four Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actress (Davis), and two Best Supporting Actress nods (Spencer and Chastain) — The Help, though well acted, is a major disappointment, a simplistic and condescending movie about an extremely important subject that deserved better treatment.