Pras on World Films: THE HELP

Based on one of the most talked about books in years and a #1 New York Times best-selling phenomenon,  “The Help” stars Emma Stone (“Easy A”) as Skeeter, Academy Award®–nominated Viola Davis (“Doubt”) as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny—three very different, extraordinary women in Mississippi during the 1960s,  who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project that breaks societal rules and puts them all at risk. From their improbable alliance a remarkable sisterhood emerges, instilling all of them with the courage to transcend the lines that define them, and the realization that sometimes those lines are made to be crossed —even if it means bringing everyone in town face-to-face with the changing times.

There’s a scene in “The Help,” the new movie based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel, that cracks open the early-’60s world of strained smiles and gentility that rarely leaps out of this big, ole slab of honey-glazed hokum. It’s after hours, and Aibileen, a maid played with determined grace by Viola Davis, is going home. Suddenly the bus stops, and a white man orders the black passengers off, explaining that a black man has been shot — except that he doesn’t say black, Negro or colored. In a pool of dreadful night, Aibileen and a young man trade goodbyes and rush off. And then this sturdy, frightened woman starts running as if her life were in danger, because it’s Mississippi, and it is. When she gets to safety, Aibileen learns that the man who has been shot is Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was gunned down in Jackson, Miss., on June 12, 1963, in front of his home. His wife and three young children, who were trained to lie on the floor in case of gunfire, found him, and Evers died shortly afterward. Hours before, President John F. Kennedy, spurred on by different national events, including the demonstrations in Birmingham led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had delivered his landmark speech about civil rights. He said we were facing a “moral crisis as a country and a people” and soon introduced legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same year “The Help” rises to its teary, insistently uplifting end. (FROM ‘The Maids’ Now Have Their Say  By Manohla Dargis)

Set in Jackson, Miss. — the middle-class heart of the Deep South — The Help is Aibileen’s story.  The story, which Mr. Taylor adapted for the screen, involves Skeeter’s attempts to interview Aibileen, Minny and others about their experiences as maids. Skeeter, recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to find that Constantine (a frail-looking Cicely Tyson), her family’s longtime maid and the woman who raised her, has disappeared. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine — Skeeter’s ill mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), isn’t saying — she begins a process of discovery. She lands a newspaper job, meets a boy (Chris Lowell) and slowly starts to see her friends for the bigots they are. Alas, she doesn’t cozy up to the only interesting white woman in town, Celia (a winning Jessica Chastain), a bottle blonde shunned by almost everyone but her own maid, Minny. She Posterkeeps your attention focused on her and Minny even when the story drifts over to Elizabeth and her white friends, who include a segregationist housewife, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, energetic in a thankless role), and the far more liberal Skeeter (Emma Stone, uncharacteristically wan). A would-be writer, Skeeter is the one asking Aibileen all those questions.

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