Early in the recent film, crusading journalist Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) wonders what Mammy (Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel) of “Wind” would have to say if she was to really speak her mind. Which is the premise of “The Help,” where Skeeter convinces African-American housemaid Aibileen (Viola Davis) to tell all in a book, at great risk to her job and her life, since this is pre-civil rights Jackson, Mississippi.
Based on the Kathryn Stockett bestseller, “The Help” even has a Scarlett O’Hara of sorts, a real racist mean one in the form of white Southern Belle homemaker Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron’s daughter). Hilly is obsessed with passing a legislative initiative to enforce a separate bathroom for “coloreds” in every white household. When Hilly hears her maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer), “flushing” the off-limits commode, she is quick to show her the door to unemployment. Minny, who joins Aibileen in contributing to Skeeter’s book (also called, “The Help”), gets her just desserts by providing Hilly with a special dessert, a pie with a secret ingredient. It’s the pie which becomes a source of eternal humiliation to Hilly, particularly when the “ingredient” is revealed to all in the book.
Directed by Tate Taylor, who, like author Stockett, hails from Jackson, Miss., “The Help” is a socially conscious film, which could have played as seriously as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But thanks to the directorial tone tied to brilliant tragic-comic performances of Spencer and others, the film overflows with fun … without undercutting the significance of civil rights.
“The Help” is long (2 hours and 17 minutes), but you’d never know it, what with such powerful actors as Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson adding to the excellence of the cast. At the center is Viola Davis who, as she does in “Doubt,” plays a woman of courage confronting an unjust system.
Go see “The Help.” It’ll give you a new way of looking at “Gone With the Wind.”