Not exactly Upstairs Downstairs: The American Version, nor Desperate Housewives in the Deep South, but perhaps a little bit of both, The Help is that odd movie that’s much too long yet never quite long enough. That is, with its look back at the plight of African-American female house servants in the mid-20th century Jim Crow South—and their tumultuous when not tedious interaction with the smug young Southern belles for whom they toil—this rather claustrophobic, reality-based tale, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, is on the minimalist side when tracing the background of racially rooted lives. And its lack of historical clarity is compounded by its “she said, she said” assorted oral histories.
Adapted from the Kathryn Stockett bestseller and helmed by writer/director Tate Taylor, The Help stars Emma Stone as Skeeter, a recent college grad reared among the Southern elite, who is returning to her childhood home in Jackson, Mississippi just as the Civil Rights Movement is about to ignite across the South. Shunning traditional domestication to be a serious writer, Skeeter observes the thwarted and oppressed lives of the black house maids in her high-society midst, and decides to gather their stories for a book.
At first fearful of reprisals, the maids (played with grace and charm by, among others, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) decline participation. But as their respective rage mounts against the demanding (when not denigrating) women they work for, the maids begin to relate their angry stories in secret, with Skeeter as eager stenographer.
The Help, with its fragmented and anecdotal flow, is an uneven mix of humor and terror that never quite encapsulates the turbulent period. And there is always a lingering sense of Skeeter’s—or rather Stockett’s—motives, that this is as much about her own personal payback against the privileged females she grew up with, who labeled her the odd outsider, as it is about the plights of these maids.
If The Help appears to intimate that all scores have been nicely settled, resentments vented and callous offenders sufficiently humanized in that regard, let’s not forget the countless undocumented help who still toil under tragic circumstances today—and in many cases, harking back to the days of slavery in its modern day global-trafficking version. Where is Skeeter now, when we need her?
Walt Disney Studios