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.