Give a white male director a script about Southern racism and nine times out of 10 he’ll hand you back the story of an enlightened sports team wrapped in a flashy soundtrack. Director Tate Taylor manages to break this mold in his adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help.
Set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Miss., the film focuses on young, wealthy white mothers and their maltreatment of the black maids who serve them. Emma Stone plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an aspiring writer whose childhood friends have grown up to resemble rabidly racist hybrids of the Plastics and the Stepford Wives. Sparked by contradicting stories regarding the abrupt departure of her own family’s maid, Skeeter attempts to document the reality of the Jim Crow era through a book detailing the experiences and perspectives of Jackson’s “help.”
Taylor might be a white dude, but he successfully parodies touchy stereotypes—Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) loves fried chicken and throws down plenty of “Lord knows you don’t wanna mess with this angry black woman” moments—in a way that calls attention to the guilt in the room while neither pardoning nor paralyzing white viewers.
Despite the ubiquity
of racism in Jackson, most of the film’s nauseatingly painful acts of
dehumanization are channeled into one character: Hilly Holbrook (Bryce
Dallas Howard), who also happens to be Skeeter’s closest friend. As the
host of Jackson’s most elite bridge club and head of the Junior League,
Hilly wears her privilege like a thorny tiara, even drafting a bill to
require segregated bathrooms in homes. While Hilly serves as the primary
punching bag for the viewer’s inevitable outrage, Taylor does an
excellent job of highlighting more latent and complicated forms of
racial hypocrisy, as embodied by Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte (Allison
Janney). The Help doesn’t reward its viewers with a championship
trophy. Instead, the film presents the reality of Southern life in the
1960s as something that takes much more than a high-school squad to
86 SEE IT: The Help opens Wednesday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Cinema 99, City Center, Evergreen, Fox Tower, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville and Sandy.