“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” That simple refrain is heard several times during “The Help,” a new film based on the bestselling book by Kathryn Stockett. Abileen (Viola Davis), a maid working in the 1960's South, often repeats it to Mae Mobley, the little girl she takes care of at work. Although Mae's mother doesn't work, Abileen is charged with raising the little girl in this film about a group of maids who tell their life stories to a young author who is trying to write a book about them.
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Abileen, the kind-hearted soft-spoken maid, is the story's narrator. By day, she works tirelessly for a female employer who neglects her own children and by night, she silently grieves the death of her own son. When a bathroom is added to the home she works in so that the African-American help don't have to use the regular restroom, she is asked to accept this happily knowing that some of the women in town believe that black people spread diseases and shouldn't be allowed to use the main bathroom.
As "The Help" begins, recent college graduate Skeeter (Emma Stone) is hired to write a cleaning column for the local newspaper. Skeeter, who is friends with Abileen's boss, relies on Abileen for advice for the column. However, Skeeter eventually decides to start writing a novel about the maids in town who raise white children but are often treated poorly by their employers.
When Skeeter starts recruiting other maids for the book, she meets a lot of resistance from maids who fear for their jobs and their lives. If they are caught talking about their employers to a white woman, they could face a lot of trouble. However, Abileen eventually recruits her friend Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and others to participate in the process.
Much of the story works here but it moves very quickly at the beginning leading to a lot of overt exposition. The story is jam-packed with characters and plot twists, so the opening scenes feel rushed but does eventually settle down into a more manageable pace. I was reading the book when I first saw the movie and felt early scenes could have been handled a bit better by leaving out some unnecessary storylines.
When I recently interviewed Spencer and director Tate Taylor
, they both noted that audiences didn’t see this film as a civil rights film which is absolutely correct. The story always stays focused on the characters and the story, instead of the events of that time period. Abileen, Minnie and Skeeter aren’t actively fighting for the cause of civil rights. They are just three people who want to tell the truth about how black maids were treated during that time period. Some maids tell stories about their bosses who make them feel like part of the family but others talk about how their employers treat them like second-class citizens.
The story does have some obvious flaws, especially some of those excessive storylines that make the film nearly two and a half hours long. When I talked to Taylor, who also adapted the book into a script, he told me that he tried to keep as much of the story as possible. On one level, that works but on another, storylines like Skeeter's romance with the son of a prominent politician feel out of place. Despite that, several of the actresses do great work. Davis was well-chosen as the narrator but I was especially impressed with Spencer, who does an excellent job in a supporting role.
With the "help" of actresses like that and a great story to go along with it, "The Help" is not to be missed.