BY NANCY R. MANDELL
In the mood for a good read? Then put down the book and line up for the film version of “The Help,” Katherine Stockett’s best-selling novel about domestic relations in the pre-Civil Rights South.
Whenever a best-seller becomes a movie, the same quandary arises: If you haven’t read the book, you wonder if you should before you see the film. And if you have read it, you’re probably criticizing the virtually all-female cast in advance.
Fortunately for “The Help,” which opens in wide release today (Aug.10), no such problems should crop up. First-time author Stockett and Tate Taylor—executive producer, director, and screenwriter—were childhood friends in Jackson, Miss. where the novel is set, and shared the angst of Stockett’s publishing efforts. Reportedly, Taylor read the manuscript even while it was being rejected by more than 60 literary agents and told Stockett not to give up. With just one short and one feature to his credit, he assured her that, “If it doesn’t get published, I’ll make it into a movie.”
Well, the novel was published and Taylor, along with producer Brunson Green—another member of their mini-Mississippi mafia—has fashioned a film that should please readers and non-readers alike. Even those who choose to carp over details will have to admit that the exceptional casting enriches the spirit of the source.
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The film stars the unconventionally pretty Emma Stone, a newcomer praised in so many recent releases (“Easy A,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Friends With Benefits” to name a few) that she has already landed on the cover of Vanity Fair. “Skeeter” Phelan is an Ole Miss grad and aspiring “serious” writer who decides that what her hometown—and the public in general—needs, is a look at life from the perspective of the housemaids and cooks who toil in the homes of the wealthy white residents of Jackson, circa1963. (Nearby Greenwood, Miss. a town that managed to retain its sixties’ aura, stands in effectively for the filmmakers’ hometown.)
Stone has just the right spunky individuality to portray Skeeter, whose determination to write a book about “The Help” is as discouraged by her well-married high school girlfriends as it is at first, from the black women she needs to interview. This is, after all, an era when Mississippi actually issued pamphlets outlining the laws of conduct between blacks and whites. And the multi-racial sisterhood Skeeter creates is actually illegal.
Skeeter’s breakthrough comes when she asks Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who works for one of those friends, what it feels like to raise someone else’s children while your own are left in the care of others. In fact, Aibileen has raised 17 white children over the course of her life, and lost her only son in a freak accident. Once Aibileen opens up, it’s not long before others join in. Davis, who won a Tony last year for her role in “Fences,” gives Aibileen the dignity and humility to express the conflicting emotions involved in mothering children whose own mothers are too busy playing “mommy” to comprehend their insufficient parenting.
But Jackson’s genteel racism is forced into focus when Skeeter’s old friend Hilly Holbrook, leader of the Junior League brat pack, decides to sponsor an initiative that takes “separate but equal” to the edge — requiring all white households that employ “colored” help to provide them with a separate bathroom. (The situation makes for some pretty funny bathroom humor, in a vein far from that of “The Hangover” films.) Bryce Dallas Howard plays Hilly with snottiness that manages to just hold the line between character and caricature
The movie’s other major domestic figure is Minny Jackson, a sassy, 33-year-old maid with the reputation of being Mississippi’s best cook. When Hilly fires her, Minnie takes revenge in a manner that both satisfies herself and makes Skeeter’s book a local scandal. Octavia Spencer, a familiar character actor and old friend of Taylor’s, inhabits Minny to a tee. And why not? Stockett is said to have modeled Minny on the actress.
Rounding out the delightful cast are Allison Janney as Skeeter’s skeptical mother; Jessica Chastain (“Tree of Life”), very funny as a “white trash” newcomer who doesn’t know the in-crowd rules; Mary Steenburgen as Skeeter’s agent, and finally, Sissy Spacek — effective, if wasted, as Hilly’s all-too-liberal mother. In a flashback cameo, Cicely Tyson as the Phelan family’s former maid has the thankless task of reprising the era’s inequities.
In truth, “The Help” probably couldn’t have been written in the Mississippi of the sixties, and in any case, the author and filmmakers are far too young to have experienced that particularly nasty racial climate themselves. The result may be sugar-coated pseudo memoir, but its engaging characters turn a brutal time into warm-hearted portents of the Civil Rights movement to come. And as a movie, it makes a darn good read!
“The Help” opened in theaters on Wed., Aug. 10.