It’s been told a thousand times: the story of a nice white lady who leads the quiet black population to have a voice. But what makes The Help more than a simple story of civil rights and equality are the perspectives of the two maids who are brilliantly portrayed by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis.
Directed by Tate Taylor and adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, the film takes place in the early 1960s in picturesque Jackson, Mississippi and tells the intertwined and emotional drama of three women. The first is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a young, white, recent college graduate who comes home and yearns to become a writer. The others, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), are maids.
When the white queen of Jackson, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, perfectly cast with flawlessly coiffed hair, narrow eyes, permanently pursed lips and a holier-than-thou demeanor), pressures other ladies to build separate bathrooms for their maids, Skeeter’s interest is piqued. She decides to write a book about the world of the help from the maids’ perspectives, thus shaking the foundation of black and white relations in the strict southern town.
The film adaptation is largely loyal to the plot of Stockett’s novel and does a remarkable job bringing the characters to life, mostly through inspired casting. Every character pops on screen, from the gangly, slightly awkward mannerisms of Stone’s Skeeter to the high-heeled, wide-eyed Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, a long way from her role in Tree of Life). Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek round out the cast with delightful turns as Skeeter’s mother and Hilly’s mother, respectively.
Ultimately, the heart of the story lies with the maids, Aibileen and Minny. Spencer and Davis are heartbreaking as the two maids with everything to fight for, but no means to do so. With a glance here and a clenched jaw there, the two communicate their pain not through words, but through silence.
Pacing is the only thing at fault in The Help. With a runtime of two hours and 17 minutes, some sequences in the film only add to the film’s length, not to its story or message. Skeeter’s romantic fling with Stuart (Chris Lowell) feels out of place in the screen adaptation, despite being integral to her portrayal in the novel. Plus, some plotlines are changed, including the background of Skeeter’s original maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson) and Skeeter’s mother’s role in the ordeal, differences that may be jarring to audiences who have read the novel.
However, the film does successfully convey its message of tolerance, courage and friendship. It’s not too sappy about the challenge of overcoming racial tensions -– there’s no broad brushstroke of happiness or innocence in the plot that makes it a completely feel-good film. Yes, the characters experience success, and yes, there are parts that can make audiences cheer, but at the same time, the journey the characters take can lead to shed tears.
The film simply tells Stockett’s story, and brings the audience to care for the characters the way Stockett captured her audience through the first-person narratives in the novel. And if anything, it’s worth a watch just for the performances by the impeccably cast actresses. Despite some shortcomings, The Help is a loyal adaptation of the book, presenting the story in as earnest a way as possible, with moving and dramatic sequences woven together with lighthearted, heartwarming performances.