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updated: 8/10/2011 12:01 PM

'The Help' works with sharp humor, excellent acting

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  • Skeeter (Emma Stone), left, befriends "The Help" -- Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) -- so she can write an expose on the snooty, racist white women in a Southern town during the Civil Rights era.

    Skeeter (Emma Stone), left, befriends "The Help" -- Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) -- so she can write an expose on the snooty, racist white women in a Southern town during the Civil Rights era.

  • Video: "The Help" movie trailer

 
 

Set in Mississippi during the violent Civil Rights era, "The Help" uses lots of crisp humor and sharply drawn, well-cast characters to empathize with the plight of black women working as house servants for self-centered, racist white women.

Tate Taylor's movie, based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel, focuses on a white, wannabe journalist named Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) who interviews these black women and records their revealing, personal stories in an anonymously written book titled "The Help."

It doesn't actually change anything, but it apparently makes everyone feel better.

Adopting a light, comic approach laced with serious turns ("Steel Magnolias" comes to mind), "The Help" comes dangerously close to becoming another one of those white savior movies in which a noble and just white character selflessly fights for the rights and dignity of minorities unable to help themselves.

Here, the black women are quite adept at survival tactics to get through the daily injustices heaped upon them by the South's continuing slave culture and the childish behavior of their employers, socially elite white ladies.

Although Skeeter serves as the main character who draws together the unheard stories of the invisible help, the real hero is Aibileen Clark, a black woman who puts her income and safety on the line to tell Skeeter the truth about her life and the insensitivity of the Southern culture.

Viola Davis plays Aibileen with a crushing weariness that provides a perfect ballast to the movie's less serious material. She is equaled in screen power by Octavia Spencer's spirited Minny Jackson, whose rolling eyes and measured contempt for her employers clearly marks her as a woman who won't be pushed very far.

Minny works for two completely opposite whites. One is Hilly (an excellent Bryce Dallas Howard), the Junior League president and sponsor of a "Sanitation Initiative" to legally require whites to build separate bathrooms for black help -- to prevent the spread of cooties, or something like that.

The other is Celia (Jessica Chastain), a sweet and naive blonde from the wrong side of the tracks, a lovable ditz incapable of seeing color lines and observing the racial rules.

"The Help" features two jarring moments that shatter the comic atmosphere and remind us that the Civil Rights era wasn't all (literally) just desserts against petty white women.

The assassination of civil rights advocate Medgar Evers is reported on the TV. Closer to home, white cops slam a local black housekeeper, suspected of stealing a ring to pay for her kids' education, into a car and, without provocation, beat her with a billy club. This harsh reminder of oppression pushes her peers into helping Skeeter write her book.

I have not read Stockett's best-seller, but in Taylor's movie, there's a curious and confusing narrative wrestling match going on between Skeeter and Aibileen.

Although Skeeter actually knows all the women because she collects their stories, Aibileen inexplicably provides the voice-over narrations.

"Once I told the truth about that," Aibileen's disembodied voice tells us, "I felt free!"

If Aibileen is narrating the movie, how does she know details about Skeeter's involvement with a snobby Southerner (Chris Lowell) who falls for her rebellious nature?

Wouldn't it make better sense for the journalist to be telling us about "The Help"?

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