It's 2011 and race is still as contentious an issue as ever. How then to approach a film, based on book by a white woman (Kathryn Stockett) about a white woman writing about the 'black experience' during the United States' turbulent civil rights era? Indeed, your approach will most likely determine how much - or little - you enjoy The Help.
Upon graduating from the University of Mississippi, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Lindsay Lohan) hopes to become a journalist or a novelist. Or both. But in the meantime, she lands a job writing the cleaning advice column for the local paper in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.
Writing, or work for that matter, is anathema to Skeeter's friends; Bridge-playing, Southern sisters led by Queen Bee, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who tolerate Skeeter's independence much as her mother (Alison Janney) does: as a passing phase which will be cured by the love of a good man. It's 1963, after all.
It's this time and place which makes Skeeter's idea - of writing a warts-and-all book about life from the point of view of 'the help' - so daring. It also makes the involvement of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a woman who has worn a maid's uniform since her early teens, raising umpteen white babies and keeping house for their parents, so brave.
With America's Civil Rights movement reaching fever pitch, Aibileen seems to have reached breaking point. Not in a "I'm as mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it any more" kind of way, but in a quietly angry rebuke of the status quo. And Davis gives a commanding performance just as Aibileen's story commands our attention. Emma Stone may be the "star" of The Help, but it's very much Viola Davis's film.
Runner-up honours go to Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, the sassy-mouthed maid of Hilly and her mother (Sissy Spacek), who, after being fired for using the indoor bathroom, exacts a two-fold revenge: firstly by helping Skeeter and Aibileen with their literary project, and secondly by observing the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold - and in a pie.
Minny soon finds employment in the house of Celia Foote (a barely recognisable Jessica Chastain, channelling Marilyn Monroe), a woman shunned by Hilly's social circle and who doesn't subscribe to the traditional Southern employer-help paradigm.
Spencer's and Chastain's relationship provides much of the film's humour but one of the most heartbreaking scenes in The Help is when Minny, whilst between jobs, explains the do's and don'ts of being a maid to her eldest daughter, pulled from school and sent to work to help out with the family's finances.
Writer-director Tate Taylor does a solid job with his wonderful female ensemble and a heartfelt albeit borderline saccharine story. But at 136 minutes he could have easily lost 15 minutes (might I suggest Skeeter's romantic sub plot which goes nowhere?), and focussed more on Aibileen's and Minny's narratives.
But it's my understanding that the character of Aibileen has been fleshed out more so on the screen than the page; no doubt as a result of the prowess of Viola Davis. But I'd also suggest it's a deliberate attempt by Taylor to negate the inevitable criticism of The Help for being another of those films where a white person is responsible for empowering black people.
And in some ways Taylor's film inhabits that same 'feel good about being white' universe as The Blind Side, the 2009 film about a white woman giving hope to a young black man (and which won Sandra Bullock an undeserved Oscar). But The Help is better than that description implies and far better than that other, lesser film.
The Help may not be an important film but it's kind hearted and relatively smart, and worth seeing if for no other reason than Viola Davis.