'The Help' review: Great performances can't do all the work

Social IssuesMoviesEntertainmentOctavia SpencerViola DavisThe Help (movie)Bryce Dallas Howard

**1/2 (out of four)

Virtually every white person in 1963 Jackson, Miss. is a racist, except for Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who decides to write a book based on the stories of African-American women who raise kids (and cook and clean) for white families that disrespect them. But Skeeter can write the book onlye if maids like Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) are willing to talk, and risk losing their jobs. They work for ignorant stereotypes who are so rich and snooty that one (Bryce Dallas Howard) has a front lawn that was awarded “Yard of the Month” by, I don’t know, Gorgeous Yard Magazine or something.

The buzz: Adapting Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel, writer-director Tate Taylor (a lifelong friend of Stockett’s) should know something about a community that only wants to do things their way, having just appeared in “Winter’s Bone.” Still, Taylor will have to be careful not to let “The Help” become another story about a white heroine who arrives to help a struggling black person who isn’t nearly as fleshed out as his/her savior. Cough, “The Blind Side.”

The verdict: Very rarely does a movie come along with this many juicy parts for women, and every actress (including Jessica Chastain and Allison Janney) nails her role. Yet the movie plays it safe in the interactions between good, kind people and big-time racists, who of course (spoiler alert!) get their comeuppance so viewers feel better. Never is there a sense of how the maids live on 72 cents an hour ($182 per month) or how Skeeter has avoided the circular racism that causes young girls who love their caretakers to grow up and be just like their prejudiced moms. “The Help,” which is about a half-hour too long, showcases the need for people of any color to have a voice, but it doesn’t need to show whites learning how it feels to be marginalized. We don’t need to see white characters feeling guilty or oppressed to understand that the verbal and emotional abuse committed against “the help” is wrong.

Did you know? For some reason, a character who eats a chocolate pie that’s not actually chocolate can’t tell what’s in there from the flavor (or the smell). Uh, if it tastes like you know what, it just might be.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Social IssuesMoviesEntertainmentOctavia SpencerViola DavisThe Help (movie)Bryce Dallas Howard
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