Viola Davis in a scene from The HelpMississippi has been the setting for a number of films about the civil rights era. It was home to families rooted there by the generations before them, as well as a strong Ku Klux Klan presence. The state also enforced a strict book of laws governing the lives of all the coloured people in the area and the white people with whom they interacted. But black people were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, or even less than human, and some of them were ready to force change.

Skeeter (Emma Stone) has just returned from college to discover her family’s maid, i.e. the woman who raised her, no longer works for them. In addition, she’s appalled by the attitudes of her friends, and the way they speak to and about their maids. Desperate for a compelling topic to write about and launch her career as a journalist, Skeeter pitches an unheard of idea to her publisher: a book about what “the help” thinks about their occupations and employers. Now she just has to convince Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) to share their stories with her.

Skeeter’s pursuit of Aibileen comprises most of one act in the film. Understandably, the maids are scared of repercussions – not just relating to their jobs, but there’s also a very real threat of physical violence if they are found out. This threat is addressed throughout the film, but is still portrayed rather subtly in the narrative. Nonetheless, the courage of the women who agree to speak to Skeeter is not underplayed.

It is these women that carry the weight of the film on their shoulders. Davis and Spencer are outstanding. Davis’ Aibileen is wise, loving and sensitive. When she is forced to smile at the inconsiderate comments of a white woman, the anger and hurt she veils is heartbreaking in its sincerity. Spencer is Davis’ opposite: loud, sassy and vulnerable. She has a powerful personality and likes to speak her mind, but her fear can be just as deafening. The other women who also play maids are excellent and draw the audience’s sympathy when required.

Stone is incredibly likeable as Skeeter. She has a sense of right and wrong that her friends do not possess. In addition, her combination of ambition and desire for change is inspiring. It’s wonderful to see Stone in a role that has more substance than a teen comedy. Bryce Dallas Howard is exceptional as Hilly, a woman who appears to thrive on hate and being cruel to others. Howard spews her prejudice so naturally, it’s disconcerting; but she never falters in her portrayal of this villainous character, which is quite impressive. Sissy Spacek has a small role as Hilly’s mother, but she is a scene stealer each time she’s on screen.

The illogical opinion and treatment of coloured people remains horrifying to this day. The steadfast belief that black people carry unique, communicable diseases but are still allowed to care for white children and cook for the family is ridiculous. Though the evidence of segregation is everywhere in the picture, Hilly is the representative malicious voice of the time. They treat the help as if they were still owned slaves – only now they’re paid less than minimum wage.

This is only director Tate Taylor’s third time at the helm, but it certainly shouldn’t be his last. The authenticity he brings to Kathryn Stockett’s novel is undeniable. The film is so compelling the audience doesn’t even realize they’ve sat in a theatre seat for almost two-and-a-half hours. Having adapted the screenplay himself, Taylor’s affection for the material is present in every frame. The film takes the time to introduce viewers to its characters naturally through storytelling rather than exposition, which really builds a relationship between the audience and the characters.

This is an amazing film with a stellar cast and heartfelt story, but be prepared to shed some tears before leaving the theatre with a feeling of elevation.

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