They answer doors, cook and serve meals, change diapers and raise children for parents who are, supposedly, too busy to bother. They do all this with an air of invisibility, ignored except when they're being snapped at.
And through it all, "the help" have to maintain a silent stoicism, even when their white employers in 1960s Mississippi mutter about "the colored situation," even when they blurt out the most ignorant and hatefully callous remarks. ("They carry different diseases than we do.")
The Help is that rare civil rights melodrama to tell its story from the point of view of faceless, almost anonymous black Southerners who lived through that era. It's based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel about black maids in 1960s Jackson, Miss., the white women they worked for and the new college graduate determined to make a name for herself by writing a book told from the maids' point of view.
Emma Stone (Easy A) is plucky, self-possessed Skeeter, fresh out of Ole Miss and ready to take a job, any job, at the Jackson Journal to get the experience she'll need to work in New York. She is just plain enough to stand out in her circle of well-to-do debutantes-turned-housewives. But she has no interest in following them into matrimony.
"Your eggs are dying," her mother (Allison Janney) drawls. "Would it kill you to go on a date?"
Skeeter turns her household- cleaning column into an excuse to chat with her friends' maids. That's where she figures out a pitch to make to a New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen). She'll get the maids to tell their story.
"Nobody ever really talks about it down here," Skeeter says.
Mercifully, actor-turned-director Tate Taylor steps back from the precipice of precious and focuses on the maids. Merely talking to Skeeter about their lives was illegal under the "Jim Crow" racial-subjugation laws of Mississippi. But the long-suffering Aibileen (Viola Davis, wonderful) and too-sassy-to-suffer-forever Minny (Octavia Spencer, in a breakout performance) start to talk. And talk. And through them, we see Jackson's social register laid bare.
There's a sentimental soap-opera streak to this tale as Taylor tries to balance the bridge club-country club stories with the daily insults and hardships Aibileen and Minny endure. Worst of the worst is the queen of the ladies who lunch, Hilly, played with a steel-magnolia intensity by Bryce Dallas Howard. She preaches separation of the races, bullies her perfectly coiffed friends into installing "colored bathrooms" behind their houses and makes sure the loud, brassy and cheap Celia (Jessica Chastain of The Tree of Life, a hoot here) is always ostracized, on the outside looking in.
Hilly is a terror, but she doesn't realize that the greatest threat to her reign is right under her nose, refilling her coffee cup. The maids watch and listen and judge.
The cute struggles with the condemnable in this script as we learn how maids were handed down like house slaves (and kept from pursuing a living elsewhere), how maids sorrowfully passed their careers down to their daughters and how delicate a dance they had to perform to appeal to the racist sensibilities of some of their employers.
Davis and Spencer come to embody the circumscribed and self-censored worlds these women inhabit, with Minny having to explain the rules to her bubbly, lonely and racial barrier-breaking new employer, Celia. Aibileen carries a sorrow that is only partly built from a lifetime of servitude.
There are distractions, e.g. Skeeter's dating efforts (men, in general, are non-entities here). Sissy Spacek does an adorable, crowd-pleasing turn as Hilly's dotty, somewhat less racist mother. And Cicely Tyson is seen, in flashbacks, as Skeeter's housekeeper and nanny, who deserves credit for making her the woman she has become.
Despite occasional cloying moments, The Help transcends its comfort-food-for-Oprah's-Book-Club wrapping to get at something deeper, the gray in a story that seems so far removed as to be utterly black and white. And Davis and Spencer give faces and fleshed-out lives to women who must have been more than what they did as "the help."