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For Your Consideration: 'The Help'

The Oscar nomination ballots are due back from members of the Academy a week from today, and speculation about what films will get the nod and for what is everyone's favorite pastime. One film that ranks high in the speculation is The Help, a breakthrough feature directed and written by Tate Taylor (known as an actor, in Winter's Bone, for example). The screenplay is based on the debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, who happens to be Taylor's childhood friend from Jackson, Mississippi, where the story is set -- in the Civil Rights era, before either of them was born. The film has had widespread popular success with audiences, if not with critics, making back its entire $25 million budget in just its opening weekend and going on to gross over $160 million.

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The Help, directed by Tate Taylor

(released on December 6, 2011)
The movie has much in it to admire, beginning with the world-weary but grand and dignified performance of Viola Davis, as Aibileen Clark, a black maid in a white family's household. Against her better judgment, she agrees to help aspiring journalist and author Eugenia ("Skeeter") Phelan, played by a far less remarkable Emma Stone, for a book she wants to write about the lives of the invisible maids in the 1960s American south. The rest of the cast is a gallery of stock characters, bitchy white women of privilege (Bryce Dallas Howard, Ahna O'Reilly, Anna Camp), a white trash outsider (Jessica Chastain, bleach-blonde and inane), Sissy Spacek in a delightfully batty turn as an increasingly senile mother, and a straight-shooting maid who eventually helps Aibileen and Skeeter (the sassy Octavia Spencer). Making the best of the best role, however, is Davis, who made quite an impression in a small role in Doubt a couple years ago and who deserves a nomination for best actress.

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The vast divide between blacks and whites in Mississippi, in spite of the inter-reliance of the two groups, is vividly drawn, in a way that connects the novel and its film adaptation, as Ralph Eubanks pointed out, to the world described in the short stories of Eudora Welty and other writers. In particular, the intertwining of families, especially the bonds between white children and the black maids who raise them, is appreciated in all its complexity. Unfortunately, in the last 30 or 40 minutes the film loses its way, turning from a serious examination of race issues into a parody of the south à la Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A gross tale of revenge takes on far too much importance, played up grotesquely for its humorous excess, and ultimately it seems far too easy (and, at worst, disrespectful and trivializing) to assume that generations of racial injustice -- and the real and terrifying threat against any action to change it -- have vanished because of the publication of one slender book.

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