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Vol. LXV, No. 33
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) has returned to her wealthy family’s homestead in Mississippi after going to college up north. As a journalist, she is appalled by the treatment by the white establishment of the black maids who raised her and her friends, and so she is determined to write a book exposing the horrible effects of Jim Crow segregation on the black maids.

The Help: Film Explores Socialite-Maid Relationships in ’60s Mississippi

Kam Williams

Kathryn Stockett made an auspicious debut in 2009 with the publication of The Help, a poignant book that examines the relationships between white socialites and their black maids in Mississippi. Although the story is set in the author’s hometown of Jackson in the early sixties, her best-selling novel is more fictional than autobiographical.

The screen adaptation unfolds from the point of view of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a long-suffering nanny who is bone-weary from a life spent “lookin’ after white babies.” Born in 1911, she is currently raising Mae Mobley Leefolt (Emma and Eleanor Henry), a recent addition to a prominent Southern family.

As the narrator, Aibileen reveals to the audience the existence of a “bitter seed” that was planted deep inside of her soul after the recent death of her only son. Still, she won’t risk her job by allowing her face to reveal even a trace of that resentment in the presence of her employers. Instead, she dutifully nourishes the impressionable toddler in her care by regularly reciting the same spiritual mantra she’s shared with all of the 17 other children who were entrusted to her care over the years, namely: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”

By contrast, Aibileen’s mercurial best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer), is not nearly as stoic, which explains why she has frequently been fired for insubordination. After all, the strict housekeeper code of conduct — that forbids spanking, touching, sassing white folks, and especially not using their bathrooms — thoroughly tests her patience.

Minny is lucky to be alive after her latest outburst which led to her being dismissed by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), an insufferable shrew who only got what she deserved. Minny is able to land a position with Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a newcomer who is ostracized by the other well-to-do ladies because of her white trash roots.

The plot thickens when cotton plantation heiress Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home. Having spent time away from the racism of her hometown, the aspiring journalist now finds herself offended by the way of life that everyone else around her apparently takes for granted.

Sympathetic to the plight of the long suffering black servants who had raised her and her friends so lovingly, Skeeter decides to write a book recounting what life in Jackson is like from their perspective. So, starting with Aibileen and Minny, she starts approaching other maids to cooperate with the project, which is no mean feat, since this is Mississippi at a time when it was often fatal to challenge the status quo.

Directed by actor turned director Tate Taylor, The Help is a compelling tale of survival which paints a plausible picture of the tensions between blacks and whites that simmered just below the surface during the days of Jim Crow segregation. To its credit, the production revisits the shameful era without indulging the temptation to resort to either propaganda or melodrama, unless you count an act of sweet revenge reminiscent of the coup de grace delivered in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

Viola Davis is likely to earn another Oscar nomination for her performance as the anguished Aibileen. Other members of the cast are equally effective, especially Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Emma Stone in pivotal roles, as well as fine supporting performances by Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Cicely Tyson, Allison Janney, and Aunjanue Ellis.

Excellent (4 Stars). Rated PG-13 for mature themes and ethnic slurs. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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