The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's novel, is about what happens when a young white writer (Emma Stone) in early-'60s Mississippi sets out to make a book collecting the tales of the black maids who reared white children in her hometown.
It's painful watching human beings suffer, and the everyday racism here is appalling. The Help works as an exercise in empathy. I think it would have worked better had director Tate Taylor (Satterfield in Winter's Bone) drawn the bigoted white women with as much detail as he did the maids. The story is determined to present the blatant racism of the era while keeping the crowd happy with Hallmark moments and comical situations. Taylor's efforts to follow the template of the book seem strained at times.
Regardless of any misgivings over the presentation style, the film packs a punch, aided immeasurably by the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as maids Aibileen and Minnie, with strong support by Emma Stone as the writer. Davis makes you feel the pain, weariness and determination of her character, while Spencer offers fire, coupled with a strong sense of caution over the life-threatening dangers of the book project. As the budding journalist, Stone delivers another solid performance.
The Help manages to be horrifying and inspirational despite its heavy-handedness. I wish it had been as stark as Taylor's performance in Winter's Bone. I didn't buy the ending, which gives the audience a hug and a pat on the bottom to send us on our way. Too calculated. Too tidy for a situation that is anything but neat.