Civil rights stories often can be problematic, because race has always been such an explosive and divisive issue. Filmmakers either walk on eggshells in an effort not to offend or come armed with an agenda that lends their work a preachy, self-righteous tone. 'The Help,' a slick yet thoughtful adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel about domestic servitude in early 1960s Mississippi, falls somewhere in between. The movie occasionally adopts an Oprah-esque flavor as it chronicles the burgeoning empowerment of a group of black maids in the heavily segregated city of Jackson, yet most of the time tells its socially conscious tale with quiet grace and a forthright sensibility that heighten its impact. Director Tate Taylor, who also wrote the script, honors his subjects without canonizing them. He salutes their strength, courage, and dignity while sympathizing with their plight and condemning the society that subjugates them. And he does it with just enough warmth and humor to strike a proper balance between message and entertainment.
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring writer and product of her traditional Southern upbringing, yet she's more independent and inquisitive than her ditzy, socialite peers, who shamelessly flaunt their elevated stature and don't hesitate to diminish the African-American women who work for them. The worst offender is the haughty, judgmental Hilly Holbrook (Dallas Bryce Howard), who goes so far as to propose an audacious Home Health Sanitation Initiative, which requires all white residences to install a separate lavatory for the hired "colored" help, so the family's bathrooms won't be contaminated. Skeeter can't abide such ignorance and intolerance, and sets out to expose the rampant bigotry that pervades her community by providing a forum for the hardworking black housekeepers to relate their experiences and talk about the oppression that has defined and directed their lives.
Convincing the maids to participate is no easy task, but Skeeter at last forms an alliance with the stoic Aibileen (Viola Davis) and spunky Minny (Octavia Spencer), both of whom realize that, despite the risks, telling their story is the only way to possibly incite change. Skeeter also worries about potential negative ramifications in her own life, but feels compelled to champion these unsung, often invisible women, who not only cook and clean, but also profoundly and positively influence the white children they help raise, many of whom are neglected by their immature, self-centered mothers. "The help" toil tirelessly to keep their employers' families thriving, even as their own families often struggle and suffer as a result, and they are rarely given the credit, wages, and respect they so richly deserve.
'The Help' is director Taylor's first major feature, and his relaxed, lyrical style suits the material well. As a product of the environment he depicts, Taylor seems especially attuned to the story and lends it a refreshing authenticity. He often lampoons Southern society, yet laces the barbs with an underlying seriousness that strikes a chord even with those who can't identify with that way of life. And though a fair amount of inspiration is endemic to the tale, Taylor wisely doesn't lay it on too thick. 'The Help' may be a message film, but its message, thankfully, doesn't overwhelm it.
The one figure who comes off as a bit cartoonish is Hilly, whose actions and attitudes occasionally go over the top. While I'm sure hateful, small-minded people like Hilly existed (and some probably acted far, far worse), she's too broadly drawn here. Howard files a terrific portrayal, but more subdued calculation instead of unabashed villainy would have made the character more effective. She's certainly a fun-to-watch rhymes-with-witch, but her cardboard nature doesn't help 'The Help.'
Ever since I saw Davis as a desperate mother in 'Doubt,' I've hoped she would nab a larger role that would showcase her sizeable talent. Aibileen fits her like a glove, and Davis' expressive eyes, which allow her to convey a multitude of emotions with a single glance, and quiet conviction make her a riveting presence. If she's not nominated for another Oscar for her performance, I will be stunned. Spencer is equally moving, and her defiant yet vulnerable demeanor adds color and spirit to the canvas. Stone turns in another feisty portrayal with sensitive shadings, and Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson also make fine impressions.
Though the TV ads for this movie make it seem like a feel-good, sisterhood comedy, 'The Help' is a serious examination of repression and emancipation. Humor enriches the story, but is only a small piece of the pie. Excellent performances by a potent ensemble cast fuel this uplifting film that provides a searing snapshot of a troubled and turbulent time while celebrating the winds of change.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Help' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case sheathed in a protective sleeve that features slightly raised lettering. The two-disc set houses both a Blu-ray and DVD. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. When the disc is inserted in the player, a language selection screen pops up first, followed by trailers for 'War Horse' and 'Real Steel,' then the full-motion menu with music.
Like many recent films, 'The Help' possesses a strikingly detailed, pristine transfer that quickly immerses us in the movie's time period. A slight bit of grain suits the 1960s setting and tempers the superior clarity just enough to provide a lovely film-like feel. Colors are beautifully saturated - the green lawns look particularly lush - but never overpower the image. Pastels and prints show up well, and fleshtones are consistent and always appear natural. Black levels are rich and inky, and no crush creeps into shadow shots.
The transfer enjoys a good degree of depth, allowing background elements to be discerned with ease. Close-ups can be breathtaking, especially those of Davis, with every skin crease and careworn expression marvelously rendered. Best of all, no digital doctoring of any kind has been applied, and no banding, noise, or artifacting breaks the movie's spell.
This is another top-notch effort from Disney that beautifully complements this quiet, thoughtful film.
'The Help' is enhanced by a solid DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that provides clear, crisp, seamlessly mixed sound. Some nice atmospherics of chirping birds and crickets bring the rear speakers into play, and good stereo separation up front lends the drama a more realistic flavor. Dialogue is well prioritized in the center channel, and all conversations are easy to understand.
Dynamic range is wide and healthy, marked by warm low tones that add subtle emphasis and highs that resist distortion, while Thomas Newman's music score enjoys fine fidelity and fills the room with ease. Not surprisingly, this recent track is clean as a whistle, with no imperfections mucking up the works.
'The Help' is a talky drama that doesn't have any big sonic showpieces, and, like many of the characters, doesn't call attention to itself. Still, it supports the film well and helps us remain focused on the interactions on screen.
A couple of extras are common to both the Blu-ray and DVD releases.
'The Help' doesn't tell us anything we don't already know, but it provides a touching, insightful look at the unsung heroines of early 1960s Southern society. Fine performances and a dash of humor distinguish this tale of strength, hope, defiance, and perseverance that tugs the heart strings but never wallows in sentiment. Disney's Blu-ray features excellent video and audio, and a couple of worthwhile supplements, all of which earn this disc a solid recommendation.