“The Help” is a delicious peppery stew of home-cooked, 1960s Southern-style racism that serves up a soulful dish of what ails us and what heals us. Laughter, which is ladled on thick as gravy, proves to be the secret ingredient — turning what should be a feel-bad movie about those troubled times into a heart-warming surprise.
The movie is richly flavored by the work of a sprawling cast that puts the exceptional Viola Davis and Emma Stone at the film’s impassioned center, with the scene-stealing tang of Octavia Spencer and the sweet-tart of Jessica Chastain thankfully never far away.
Since we generally prefer not to be reminded of the darker chapters of our history, it’s a risky business taking us back — even with a fictional tale — to Jackson, Miss., at a time when African Americans were still very much the serving class. As much a part of white family life as weekly bridge clubs and church on Sunday, black maids were often loved, more often exploited and nearly always taken for granted. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers were out there stirring things up in that season of fear, but in Jackson kitchens, things were being kept at a simmer.
Against that backdrop, “The Help” takes us inside an unlikely rebellion. It all begins when new Ole Miss grad Skeeter (Stone) comes back home and tries to persuade the women who cook and clean and raise the babies to tell their stories and secrets. She has a publishing career on her mind; they have uncomfortable truths, and redemption on theirs. For both sides it becomes a test of courage and conviction told in a kind of Capra-esque style, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel has given writer-director Tate Taylor a lot to chew on. Born and raised in Jackson, they are longtime friends and you can feel that connection in the care with which Taylor approaches the material, though the reverence is exactly what eventually trips him up. As a result, the movie exists within an emotionally charged landscape sometimes too starkly black and white — there is no room for ambiguity at this table.
With Taylor’s deep Southern roots, he insisted on shooting the film on location, ultimately finding the retro feel he was looking for in Greenwood, Miss. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, whose keen sense of the South earned him an Oscar nomination for 1991’s “The Prince of Tides,” makes the most of it, giving even the dirt roads and decaying frame houses a kind of gauzy beauty usually reserved for the plantation-styled manses. Production designer Mark Ricker (“Julie & Julia”) matches him in kind — this is a man who knows his way around kitchens, an asset since it is in kitchens that much of the movie takes place.
While a lot of the action happens over stoves, it’s the toilets that become the moral proving ground — and deliver some of the movie’s funniest moments. That “The Help” can take the incendiary issue of “separate-but-equal” bathrooms and spin it into a series of side-splitting gags without losing sight of the underlying pain of discrimination, represents a kind of comedy I thought Hollywood had forgotten how to do. You know, the kind that makes us laugh while going right to the heart of the matter, and comes as a blessed relief from the vapid raunch that has become the norm.
Skeeter’s new job at the local newspaper, a rejection letter from a New York publisher and the unexplained absence of Constantine, the maid who raised her, get things underway. From the outset, she is at odds with the world she comes back to — childhood friends now grown and married are busy replicating their mothers’ lifestyle of polished silver, properly behaved children and dinner on the table by six.
Seeing that same world but with a more wounded and far wiser eye is Aibileen (Davis), whom Skeeter enlists to help her with the cleaning advice column she’s writing for the paper. Ambition and insight are a dangerous mix and soon Skeeter wants to make a book out of the maids’ real life stories — the outrages, the secrets, the deep bonds and deeper hurts they share with the families they often spend a lifetime working for. But in ‘60s Jackson, speech is not free, and talking carries the possibility of losing much more than a job, which is precious enough.
Skeeter has always been a pea without a pod, which makes it a perfect fit for Stone’s distinctive brand of authenticity. This is an actress who willingly lets her jaw drop and eyes roll, but in the most natural of ways. The world-weary Aibileen is the perfect counterpoint to the newly minted skeptic. Davis carries the weight of history in every move, she makes you feel the ache in Aibileen’s aging knees as she bends to comfort a crying child, and there is a sadness that lingers in her eyes even when they are crinkled by laughter.
The biggest surprise is Spencer, a savory bit of truth-telling sass as Minny. She’s more than a match for her nemesis, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), a separate-but-equal harpy, who would have benefited from a bit more shading. These two are on a collision course that Spencer keeps comically churned up almost from start to finish.
When Spencer takes a breather, Chastain, the ethereal beauty in “The Tree of Life,” is there as a blond bombshell with a less-than-pristine past but with a sweetness so winning you understand why she walked away with Jackson’s most eligible man.
Allison Janney — making motherhood into a nice career with fine performances in “American Beauty” and “Juno” under her belt — is another linchpin in the story. As Skeeter’s mother, she’s forever wishing that her daughter would just make an effort to fit in. It can seem a simple thing as she tries to work Skeeter’s unruly curls into bouffant perfection — but conformity and all the pressure it brings become yet another thorny issue underpinning the narrative almost as much as racism.
At some point, everyone is forced to make a choice — to stay or break with the status quo. For the maids of Jackson, whether or not to participate in the book becomes the test. By the time it lands, it has become the kind of political hot potato that is searing and scathing in ways that will leave you laughing and crying.
“The Help” is only Taylor’s second feature film and a big leap from the small scale of his pointed “Pretty Ugly People,” which poked fun at our obsession with being thin. His strength, as it was in his debut, is in fully mining the comic talents of his actors to help the drama go down; he’s less sure-footed in handling the big themes. In being true to the book and the complex interlocking stories and characters Stockett created, Taylor runs into the same difficulty — too many happy endings that come too fast and fail to foreshadow the difficulties that lie ahead.
Still, you won’t want to miss this quintessential Southern portrait of the long, hot summer of their discontent.