When you love a book—I mean really love it—you approach its screen adaptation with a curious mix of hopefulness and combativeness: “Oh, I hope they do it justice” blended with “they better not screw it up.”
So I’m happy to report that newcomer Tate Taylor’s screen version of The Help—a book that I loved, your mama loved, and, more importantly, Oprah loved—not only does the book justice, but manages to replicate many of its specific and satisfying joys.
In Jim-Crow-era Mississippi, Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college grad who has ambitions beyond cotillion parties and bridge club teas, wants to give a voice to the exploited and demeaned black domestic servants, aka, “the help.” So she approaches a friend’s maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis)—and asks her to share her story for a potential book.
This, of course, could have real consequences for both of them: Skeeter could lose her (already shaky) social standing; Aibileen could get fired, arrested, or worse (racial violence was running rampant in Jackson at that time). But a slow trust forms between the two women and Aibileen, inspired by a church sermon about standing up for what’s right, agrees to tell her story. Soon Aibileen’s best friend, the feisty and proud Minny (Octavia Spencer), also agrees to talk. Eventually, more will follow.
Minny has just been wrongly fired by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a queen bee type who reigns over her fellow Junior Leaguers with a kind of arbitrary cruelty. Ironically, one of the few to see through Hilly’s desperate pettiness is her own mother—played by a sly Sissy Spacek—whose burgeoning senility has served to liberate her from the shackles of social convention.
Having been blacklisted by Hilly and her friends (but not before dishing out some truly rococo revenge), Minny can only get a job with the town’s newest outcast: housewife Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain)—a sweet-as-sugar blonde in a low-cut dress and shaky stilettos, who is deemed beneath her fellow ladies of the manor. The relationship between Minny and Celia is quite touching—Minny at first thinks Celia is a fool, but she grows protective of her, and by the end they have reached something akin to friendship.
The acting across the board is remarkable. Stone, such a gifted comic actress, truly shines in this mostly dramatic part. Chastain breaks your heart as the giddy and childlike Celia. And Octavia Spencer makes for a fierce and affecting Minny.
As for Aibileen, I’d already seen what Viola Davis could do with 10 minutes of screentime in Doubt (earn an Oscar nomination, for one), so I was eager to see how she could handle a leading role—and she doesn’t disappoint. Much of the time, Aibileen and her fellow maids are forced to stand silently, swallowing whatever fresh indignity is thrust upon them. All the better. Davis can express more with a single look—dismay, defiance, tenderness—than most actors can with pages of dialogue. In a film filled with Oscar-worthy performances, hers is the true standout.
Yes, The Help is the kind of shameless crowd-pleaser that seems to occasionally wait a few beats for audience applause. I say, who cares? Sometimes we want to be moved, we want to laugh, we want to feel a sense of collective outrage and catharsis. The Help provides all that—and then some. When we dream of movie adaptations doing justice to our favorite books, this is what we dream of.