Aibileen Clark, the decency-incarnate maid played by Viola Davis in The Help, takes care of a toddler whose own mother has barely any use for her. Mae Mobley is plump and ungainly; she looks charming in a diaper but not in the sort of frilly dresses her mother favors. It’s 1962 in the Deep South, far from the age of Oprah-style self-affirmation, yet the black maid gives the white girl a daily mantra, which the child dutifully repeats: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
The irony is inescapable: How likely is it that anyone white and over the age of 3 has ever said those kinds of nice things to weary, hardworking Aibileen? Certainly not Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), Mae’s distant, foolish mother, who is overseeing construction of a separate bathroom for Aibileen’s use. The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, couldn’t state its intentions more clearly: the shame of how little respect is paid to this good woman should and will be righted in the course of the film. Even the way Jackson, Miss., is shot — lush and in perpetual sunlight — promises a warm-hearted resolution. Casual, constant racism toward black domestics will not end entirely, but there is no doubt that revenge will be served warm to the central villain, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), an adult Mean Girl whose “eww, cooties” sensibility sets the tone for Elizabeth’s social set.
There is something about The Help that feels familiar and old-fashioned, as if it came out of that 1970s Brian’s Song and Roots era of tears and lessons. It’s also familiar because Hollywood stories of racism usually skew to the white character leading the charge against injustice (Mississippi Burning, Glory, Cry Freedom). In Stockett’s book, the feisty white heroine Skeeter is tall, gawky, frizzy-haired and can’t get a date; to play Skeeter in the movie, pretty, graceful Emma Stone just puts on glasses and some tomboy airs. She’s not bad, but this was a poor casting choice. Skeeter is a bluestocking, having developed liberal notions and journalistic aspirations at college that put her at odds with her old friends Hilly and Elizabeth. It’s her idea to write a book using accounts by Aibileen and her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer, a sassy eye-roller), Hilly’s maid, and other domestics to expose how rotten the white women are to their servants.
But for every obvious turn The Help takes, there is Davis, the ideal counterweight. In the scenes with little Mae, Aibileen’s affection for the girl is obvious, and so is her sense of dread that she, a paid employee, is more important to the child than her mother. Her eyes do tenfold the work of director Tate Taylor’s screenplay. That’s not an insult. On the contrary, Taylor’s adaptation is a finely crafted distillation of the book; even at two and a half hours it never lags. (Interestingly, he has more acting experience than directing credits, but he has known Stockett for a long time, which helped him land this sought-after gig.)
Though it is only August, it is safe to say Davis will be nominated for an Oscar. (Just 11 minutes on screen in 2008′s Doubt landed her a best-supporting nomination.) But The Help is fat with other class acts, including Sissy Spacek (as Hilly’s selectively senile mother) and Allison Janney (as Skeeter’s healthy-looking sick mother). Cicely Tyson has about five minutes on screen, all of them tearjerking. Jessica Chastain shows something of the flair and versatility of the young Julianne Moore in the part of Celia Foote, the polar opposite of her dreamy Madonna turn in The Tree of Life. Celia is ripe with cleavage, fluffy hair and Marilyn Monroe–style giggles and grins. She married into money, doesn’t know how to get these wretched socialites to stop treating her like poor white trash and wouldn’t know how to be racist. She’s too good to be true. So is The Help. Like Driving Miss Daisy, it paints a pessimistic picture and then steadily brightens it. It’s easy to pick sides, easy to feel good about every educational mud pie in Miss Hilly’s face. But there is nothing easy about Davis’ uncompromising performance. She makes The Help impossible to dismiss.