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HELP, THE (director/writer: Tate Taylor; screenwriter: based on the book by Kathryn Stockett; cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt; editor: Hughes Winborne; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Jessica Chastain (Celia), Viola Davis (Aibileen), Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly), Allison Janney (Charlotte), Chris Lowell (Stuart), Sissy Spacek (Missus Walters), Octavia Spencer (Minny), Emma Stone (Skeeter), Cicely Tyson (Constantine Jefferson), Mike Vogel (Johnny Foote), Anna Camp (Jolene), Aunjanue Ellis (Yule Mae), Mary Steenburgen (Elaine Stein), Ahna O’Reilly (Elizabeth Leeforth), Eleanor Henry (Mae Mobley), Emma Henry (Mae Mobley); Runtime: 146; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Brunson Green/Chris Columbus/Michael Barnathan; DreamWorks Pictures; 2011)
“Simplistic film that doesn’t ask too many questions and doesn’t give too many answers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This earnest but square dramedy is adapted from the 41-year-old white author Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, and wavers between self-important solemnity and crowd-pleasing comeuppance potty humor against the main villain. It relates its Jim Crow tale, set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, that has the obedient black maids of haughty racist white socialite women opening up to a white upper-class budding female writer just hired by a local newspaper. She’s the 23-year-old recent Ole Miss grad Skeeter (Emma Stone), who wants to be a conduit to the colored maids telling her how they were treated as second-class citizens back then and kept it to themselves for fear of being fired or punished. The sensitive and dutiful Aibileen (Viola Davis), who works as a maid for the weak-willed, scowling and deficient mother Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), is the first to tell her story to the wide-eyed naive single southern belle Skeeter. Skeeter is anxious to get a book deal from Harper’s NYC editor Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen) for these tell all stories. The other maids are prompted to also tell their stories to Skeeter, hoping their stories will make a difference in their daily lives.

The other maids of note are Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the maid who raised Skeeter and was fired unjustly by her racist mom (Allison Janney), and the rebellious Minny (Octavia Spencer), Aibileen’s best friend, who has trouble holding down a job because of her attitude. The film’s villain is the society queen bee, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who gets the most comeuppances–including a shit pie from fired maid Minny. The one-dimensional villain, Hilly, is noted for leading the drive for white homes that employ Negro maids to also provide separate bathrooms for them, for hygienic reasons.

It all builds to an artificial Hollywood genteel teary end, as the hateful racial divide from the past is fudged over and everything looks so uplifting for the future because the country is now moving on from its most ugly racist past and even these beaten-down folks in Jackson could see that change for the better was coming due to the civil rights movement.

Director Tate Taylor (“Pretty Ugly People”)keeps thingsmainstream cinema safe, trying his best to smooth over the horrors of segregation without antagonizing too many white folks or getting under the skin of too many black folks, even as he’s telling tales out of school and moves from white southern belle household to household to let us in on what the gossiping maids told each other about their bigoted entitled bosses.If you didn’t see the film, I bet you could have guessed what the maids were saying if you wanted to.But if you’re not into anything edgy and looking only for a well-acted feel-good film that’s sensitive that both whites and blacks have major issues to deal with coming out of such a sick society, then you found your simplistic film that doesn’t ask too many questions and doesn’t give too many answers.And at least Taylor, who filters the black experience through the white experience,didn’t falsify history like other Jim Crow period films (i.e., Mississippi Burning) by crowning the more progressive southern whites (those who were not avowed segregationists, thereby defying their upper-class upbringing) as heroes of the civil rights movement.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”