TERRY GROSS, host:
The film adaptation of Katheryn Stockett's best-selling novel "The Help" opened today. It's set in the early '60s at the dawn of the civil rights era. The story is told from three different points of view: two African-American maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi and a young white woman who wants to write about them. The film was written and directed by Tate Taylor and stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as the maids, and Emma stone as the writer.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Few fictional films wear their political messages as proudly or loudly as "The Help," which centers on black female domestic servants in Jackson, Mississippi in the early '60s and a 23-year-old white woman who induces them to tell their stories for a book to be called, appropriately enough, "The Help."
Emma Stone plays the perky white woman, Eugenia Phelan, nicknamed Skeeter, who returns from college to find her wealthy family's maid - who essentially raised her - gone under mysterious circumstances, and her friends married with kids and black maids of their own. After Skeeter talks her way into a newspaper job, ghost-writing a column on housekeeping - a subject about which she knows nothing - she reaches out for advice to her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, played by Viola Davis. But as racial tensions intensify and her snooty friends reveal their true segregationist selves, Skeeter prevails on Aibileen to give her more than household cleaning tips.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Help")
Ms. EMMA STONE (Actor): (as Skeeter) There's something else I want to write about. I would need your help. I want to interview you about what it's like to work as a maid. I'd like to do a book of interviews about working for white families, and we could show what it's like to work for, let's say, Elizabeth.
Ms. VIOLA DAVIS (Actor): (as Aibileen) You know what (unintelligible) if she knew I was telling stories on her.
Ms. STONE: (as Skeeter) Well, I was thinking that we wouldn't have to tell her. The other maids would have to keep it a secret too.
Ms. DAVIS (Actor): (as Aibileen) Other maids?
Ms. STONE: (as Skeeter) Well, I was hoping to get four or five to show what it's really like in Jackson.
EDELSTEIN: Getting those other maids turns out to be a problem, until the insults become even harder to bear. The imperious Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, announces it's unhygienic to let black people use their house toilets and directs her friends to build outhouses. Then Hilly dumps her aging mother's maid, Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, for being what's often called sassy. Although Medgar Evers has just been murdered and the KKK is on the prowl, Minny finally agrees to talk to Skeeter too. But not before laying down the law.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Help")
(Soundbite of door slamming)
Ms. OCTAVIA SPENCER (Actor): (as Minny) All right. I'm going to do it, but I need to make sure you understand this ain't no game we're playing here.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. SPENCER: (as Minny) Slide your chair up under that table. Face me.
Ms. STONE: (as Skeeter) What?
Ms. SPENCER: (as Minny) I need to see you square on at all times.
(Soundbite of chair squeaking)
Ms. SPENCER: (as Minny) I got to come up with the questions too? Oh.
Ms. STONE: (as Skeeter) Let's begin with where you were born.
Ms. SPENCER: (as Minny) (Unintelligible) Mississippi, on my great auntie's sofa.
EDELSTEIN: "The Help" is based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, both beloved for opening white eyes to the vantage of maltreated servants and attacked, in some quarters, as a white author's appropriation of black women's experience. Some of Stockett's critics have gone so far as to say she actually romanticizes domestic servitude by depicting black nannies' genuine love for the white children in their care. They also say the novel is full of stock characters that reinforce classic African-American stereotypes like the sassy maid and the shiftless, abusive husband.
My view of this controversy is easily stated: I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. I concede the novel and movie are heavy-handed. But I also think they're full of good, evocative details - closely observed depictions of the coping mechanisms of both servants and employers. The white Southern belle's passive aggression, condescension, and sheer misuse of power come through vividly.
Director Tate Taylor has a dull, square style with too many close-ups - but the faces we get close to are great ones. Emma Stone is amazingly vivid, at once blurty and brainy, and villainess Bryce Dallas Howard lifts her nose and slits her eyes with aplomb. Jessica Chastain plays a handsome rich guy's hot, uneducated wife who hires Minny on the sly to teach her how to clean and cook. The character has been simplified. In the novel she's scarily unstable - but Chastain makes her helplessness hilarious. Allison Janney triumphs over countless banalities as Skeeter's oblivious mother, and Sissy Spacek has some funny scenes as Hilly's mom, derisive toward her daughter even in her dottiness.
Octavia Spencer's Minny is indeed a stereotype, but she charges into the frame and gives her scenes a lift. The center of "The Help" is Viola Davis, who has eyes unlike other actresses. They're hard, unyielding, with no giveback, softening only for the neglected little girl in her care. It's a tough, beautifully judged performance. The weak, weepy, uplifting ending is odd, given Mississippi's imminent eruption, but there will be wet hankies everywhere. "The Help" is the highest form of middlebrow.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can watch clips from the film on our website, freshair.npr.org.