REVIEW: Brilliant Viola Davis Lifts The Help Over '60s Gloss
Everything about The Help, which details the everyday lives and struggles of black domestic workers in early-1960s Mississippi, is just a little too polished: The cinematography is creamy and radiant, the costumes piggyback heavily on Mad Men-style nostalgia, the white villainesses and heroines are, respectively, too cartoonishly cruel and too selflessly noble. Yet The Help -- which was adapted from Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel -- is compelling in spite of, not because of, its glossy trappings. It's a popular entertainment that finds its historical footing in the faces of its actors: The Help may not tell us much about the real horrors of the civil rights era, but it does tell us something about the way people lived -- and the way they handled their often conflicting loyalties and resentments -- while those horrors were playing out. In that sense, it's a radical movie masquerading as a tame, inoffensive one.
It's also radical for the way it puts Viola Davis, one of the finest actresses working today, front and center: The scarcity of good lead roles for actresses of color is an ongoing problem in Hollywood, which means that Davis has been largely relegated to smaller, supporting parts. It also means she's stolen movies wholesale from the likes of Meryl Streep -- in Doubt -- and made even the tiniest roles deeply memorable. (In Oliver Stone's 2006 World Trade Center, she played a character billed only as "Mother in Hospital," but the memory of her face is one of the few things I've taken away from that movie.) In The Help, she plays a house maid, the kind of role that African-American actresses used to be relegated to and limited by. But the whole idea of The Help is that a maid isn't just a maid, and Davis and her co-star, Octavia Spencer, breathe life into that idea. These are women with families and heartaches of their own, problems that go deeper than the travails of the women they're paid to serve, which mostly seem to revolve around entertaining and maintaining social status. The "black maid" may be a cliché. But when was the last time we saw a story told from her point of view?
The Help opens with a mighty dose of cliché, though it comes from the hands of a white character: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is a well-off Jackson, Miss., girl who's just graduated from college. While all her pals, including the snobby Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the fragile, easily cowed Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), are already paired off and starting families, Skeeter wants to have a career as a journalist. She has decided to take down the oral history of Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen Clark (Davis), with the hope of turning it into a book. The movie begins with the opening of a notebook, and the title The Help being scrawled across the top of the first page.
Having spent time away from home, Skeeter sees her environs with new eyes upon her return: She's quietly horrified by the way Hilly refuses to use Elizabeth's guest bathroom because she knows that Aibileen is allowed to use it too. She suggests loudly, and within earshot of Aibileen, that Elizabeth build a separate "colored" bathroom for her servant. When someone points out, gently, that Hilly might be overreacting, she responds robotically, "I'll do what it takes to protect the children."
Later, in a fit of irrational pique -- and against the wishes of her infirm but feisty mother, played by Sissy Spacek -- Hilly dismisses her own maid, Minny (Spencer), who has been with the family for years. Minny fights back by playing a devilish practical joke -- she refers to it by a code name, the "terrible awful" -- but it's hardly enough to quell her resentment toward her former employer. And so she too, after some coaxing, agrees to help Skeeter with her book. The story that unfolds from there makes brief references to real-life historical events -- like the assassinations of Medgar Evers and JFK -- but focuses mostly on the lives of anonymous women, white and black, privileged and struggling, against a vaguely drawn historical backdrop.
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