The decades immediately before the emergence of the modern civil rights movement can be mined for multiple arresting stories. Yesterday, this column reviewed “Get on Up,” the latest film from director Tate Taylor, which included perspectives on the challenges faced by the late great James Brown. Taylor’s previous movie was the Oscar-winning drama “The Help,” from 2011. Like “Get on Up,” “The Help” shines a light on the social and cultural environment in which blacks and whites engendered in the waning days of Jim Crow segregation.
In “The Help,” Emma Stone plays Skeeter, an aspiring writer who returns from college to live with her upper middle class family in Mississippi. She decides she wants to write a book that details the perspective of maids and the lives they live. The maids themselves are reluctant to tell their stories to Skeeter because they fear that any complaints will be used against them and their families. She does successfully convince one maid, Aibileen (played by Viola Davis), to talk to her. Shortly after, another maid, Minny (played by Octavia Spencer), agrees to share her stories. After this, more maids tell Skeeter their stories.
“The Help” has a great cast. Emma Stone is quite good. Embedded as she is in the two-tiered racial system of the South, she tries to embark on a path that both satisfies her parents and her friends but her moral compass is signaling the evils of segregation. Octavia Spencer is also strong as the feisty and creative Minny. Her performance won an Academy Award. Another great performance is by Jessica Chastain, who plays Celia, whom Minny goes to work for. Although she has married well and can now afford the finer things, she did not grow up with privilege so she is rendered as a less oppressive boss than the other white female characters. The movie’s best performance is by Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the clique leader Hilly. Although she sees herself as a good person, her sense of white privilege is profound, deep and destructive.
The screenplay for the film is strong. We see that many white people were like Hilly. They thought of themselves as good people, but they perpetuated a white supremacist society. Yet we also see that there were some genuinely good whites, like Skeeter.
“The Help” is worth seeing for its impressive performances and story.