The world The Help creates takes place less than 50 years ago. Set in a segregated Mississippi of 1963, it contrasts the remnants of a plantation, the privileged white South and the black underclass, whose grandparents — and even parents — had been born slaves.
Change is in the wind, though, and protests led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are beginning to create movement toward the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Based on Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help is a heartstring-tugging, history-lite exercise about racial relationships with an inevitable march toward an uplifting ending.
Viola Davis plays Aibileen, a maid for a white family who raises their daughter while the girl's indifferent parents live insolated lives of the upper class. Aibileen never expected to be anything else but a maid. It's what her mother and grandmother had done, she tells Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has just graduated from Ole Miss and dreams of becoming a New York writer and living a more liberal lifestyle.
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Real-life events — the killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — come into play, but director Tate Taylor's film is for the most part a fairy tale that lets little of the ugliness of the civil rights struggle disturb it.
In Hollywood, a spoonful of sugar helps the bitter reality go down, and The Help is meant to entertain more than dole out moral messages.
In a fine performance, Davis gives Aibileen soul and depth, even as some of the story's clichéd moments undercut her. A strong cast of female actors keeps The Help from going off the tracks.
Bryce Dallas Howard as a segregationist housewife and Jessica Chastain as a blond bombshell shunned by almost everyone but her own maid are noteworthy. Part of the film's conceit is that people of all races have similar problems. Well, that's something, I guess.
The Help retails for $29.99 or $39.99 Blu-ray.