Aug. 10 2011 12:00 AM

Stone, Davis and Spencer clean up in ‘The Help’

At first, “The
Help,” adapted from Kathryn Stockett´s runaway best seller, seems like
another trip to the Cinema of Self-Congratulation, in which we’re
invited to sit back and feel good about how we’ve moved beyond the
prejudices and narrow-minded thinking of an earlier era. In this case,
it’s the mindset of 1963 Mississippi, where the Civil Rights movement is
on the rise and well-to-do whites are anxiously clinging to the status

We hear them chatter about how dreadful
it would be to have to use the same bathrooms as African-Americans, even
the ones who work in their homes as maids and nannies. In many cases,
these discussions take place within earshot of the domestic workers, who
respond with silent, simmering disgust.

Oh, look how far we’ve come, the movie
seems to be inviting us to say: Thank goodness everyone today believes
in equality and abhors this sort of racist nonsense.

Except, of course, that’s not the case at
all. Only last week, the Fox Nation website described President Obama´s
birthday party as a “hip hop barbecue,” which
led anonymous forum commenters (who needs white sheets when you can hide
under the cloak of a cute pen name?) to cast aspersions on the Obamas
that were much nastier than anything heard in “The Help.” Instead of celebrating the enlightenment we’ve all supposedly experienced in the last half-century, “The Help” instead forces us to look in the mirror; the reflection is not always flattering. 

There are several scenes in which
director Tate Taylor goes a bit overboard to make the necessary point,
and Bryce Dallas Howard — as the haughty Hilly, the sneering socialite
who eventually gets her “just desserts” in the
nastiest possible manner — sometimes dances on the edge of campiness
with her one-dimensional portrayal of a Southern-fried wicked witch. But
on the whole, “The Help” functions both as a
compelling drama and as a terrific conversation-starter. How far have we
really come in terms of respecting one another?

The marvelously expressive Emma Stone (whose face reveals each emotion the second she feels it) plays Eugenia “Skeeter”
Phelan, who comes home from Ole Miss with a new-fangled idea: writing a
magazine piece that would chronicle the lives and experiences of the
African-American women who clean the homes, raise the children and cook
the meals for affluent white families. (Be forewarned: The crunch of
perfectly fried chicken in this film shakes the walls like the
explosions in a “Transformers” flick.)

Skeeter wears her non-conformist attitude
boldly. Her frizzy, barely brushed hair stands out in a sea of
carefully coiffed bouffants, honeybuns and beehives, and she has a copy
of “Native Son” on her bookshelf. But her empathy is sincere and, in the eyes of her friends and neighbors, scandalous.

It’s also mystifying to people like her
hand-wringing, marriage-minded mother, Charlotte (an amusing Allison
Janney). When Skeeter rejects a seemingly perfect suitor, insisting she
despises him, Charlotte gets to deliver the movie’s choicest bit of
down-home wisdom: “Love and hate are two horns on the same goat, Eugenia — and you need a goat!”

Skeeter gets brighter insights from
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a veteran housekeeper who is deferential
and dutiful, but not always at peace with her station in life. Aibileen
knows how to hold her tongue, a skill her flinty friend Minny (Octavia
Spencer) has never mastered and a shortcoming that leads to serious

While Skeeter is the anchor of the film and “The
Help” provides savory parts for Sissy Spacek (as a flighty matron) and
Jessica Chastain (who is heartbreakingly fragile as a bewildered trophy
wife), this is ultimately Davis and Spencer’s show. Every time the movie
threatens to veer off into the land of Southern soap opera, their
earthy, vividly drawn portrayals put it back on track. Just as Minny and
Aibileen are the power behind the thrones in the houses in which they
work, Davis and Spencer are the driving forces behind the movie, giving “The Help” a major boost.