The Academy Awards are still months away, but there is a feeling of Oscars in the air thanks to the strong female cast in the superbly acted movie The Help. Set in racially charged Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, the story, based on the book of the same name, peels back the layers of prejudice and social injustice as carefully as Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer) prepares an onion.
Minnie, touted for her exceptional cooking skills, is the maid of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Jackson’s own ironfisted leader of the Mean Girls. She insists the hired help doesn’t forget their place in Southern society and she won’t shy away from ruining reputations and lives if that’s what it takes to maintain the status quo.
Hilly’s friend Skeeter (Emma Stone), however, feels differently about the social mores of her time. Unlike Hilly, Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) and Jolene (Anna Camp) who stayed close to home, married young and started having babies for the maids to raise, Skeeter spent four years at Ole Miss. Now a graduate of journalism, she wants to tackle difficult topics. But in the meantime, she’s stuck writing a cleaning column for the local paper.
It’s while getting advice for her column from Elizabeth’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) that Skeeter suddenly pounces upon an idea for her first book—an exposé of Southern life from the perspective of the maids. Yet convincing the women to talk, even anonymously, proves difficult. With the Jim Crow laws still in effect, Aibileen and the others know their very lives are in danger for speaking out against their employers.
What’s remarkable about this script is its refusal to take a merely black and white view of the time. The portrayed society reeks with hierarchies based on race, social standing, age and the ability to make others cower. Breaking down the ingrained pecking order requires courage on the part of many.
While Davis, Stone, Howard and Spencer all offer extraordinary performances the secondary characters are equally absorbing. Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s guilt and cancer-ridden mother. Cicely Tyson appears as the gentle black woman who raised the young journalist. Jessica Chastain stars as a spurned outcast who yearns to fit in with the other white women. And Sissy Spacek puts in an incredible showing as the slightly addled, disposed matriarch of Hilly’s family. Together these women, under the direction of Tate Taylor, produce a riveting piece that unfolds with humor, tears and a generous helping of sass—thanks mostly to the outspoken Minnie who finds it impossible to follow her own advice about keeping one’s mouth shut on the job.
With so many female actors, some might incorrectly label this as a chick flick. But the drama is so much more. While frequent profanities may discourage parents from taking their children to this film, the beautiful sets, creative directing and strong character development all put The Help solidly in the running for a coveted statuette.