'The Help'

Dale Robinette/DreamWorks

Marked by great performances, this look at the women of the Jim Crow South leans toward righteousness.

In his first major studio production, The Help, writer-director  Tate Taylor enters a minefield of sociological, historical and artistic booby traps. The setting is 1963 Jackson, Miss., where racial tensions simmer between African-American maids and their white employers at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Through cruel words and haughty gestures, privileged white women communicate disdain for their black help while the maids seethe at the casual insults delivered almost daily.

Taylor does capture the Jim Crow era and its anxieties well, but his characters tend toward the facile, and his white heroine is too idealized. The film also seems as if it were made in a void of cinematic ignorance, as if no motion picture of that or any other era ever tackled this topic.

Where The Help succeeds magnificently, though, is in character portraits by actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. They play maids who agree to tell their stories to a young white journalist, "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), who means to write a book to demonstrate that racism doesn't just mean denial of education and voting rights.

Davis' Aibileen Clark is the epitome of deferential politeness with a "ma'am" at the end of every utterance. Yet her eyes speak volumes about the pain and anger she feels. She embodies the strange contradiction experienced by many a black maid or nanny who suffers abuse at the hands of white employers yet, in her case, has lavished boundless love and devotion on the 17 white children she has raised.

Meanwhile, Spencer's scrappy Minny Jackson, Aibileen's best friend and the best cook in the county, provides not only comic relief but a feistiness that shows that some maids found the gumption and means to get back at overbearing employers. Hers is a great character, and she nearly upends this movie with her righteous sass.

The film, based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, takes place in the world of Southern women.  The chauvinism the white men display toward their wives or girlfriends sets up a chain reaction where the women take out their own insecurities and inadequacies on the help.

This is all well and good up to a point, but Taylor verges uncomfortably into cliché when he insists all wisdom and long-suffering nobility resides within the black nannies while the Southern belles of the country-club set are either witches, such as Bryce Dallas Howard's impossibly villainous Hilly Holbrook, or weak-minded go-alongers such as Allison Janney's Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter's mother.

Another female character who starts off like a cliché, Jessica Chastain's dumb blonde Celia Foote, blossoms into an accidental heroine, a social outsider in Jackson whose homemaking conspiracies with Minny demonstrate that some white Southerners were color-blind even then. Which leaves the problem of the film's actual protagonist.

With a name like Skeeter, you can expect this 22-year-old to be a troublemaker. Nothing accounts for her color-blindness other that she is right-minded -- and a writer. Naturally, a novelist would assume a fellow writer is above such pettiness as racism and class snobbery.

Stone is one of our best young actresses, and she acquits herself well in this role. This might be how Scout from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird might have turned out had she become a journalist: too inquisitive, sensitive and empathetic not to brush aside the common wisdom of the day to see eternal truths about human beings.

There are small moments in the film, though, that make you long for a movie that is not so deep-dish serious, a contemporary film that could take advantage of the viewpoint of a half-century to look at the past with a kind of cock-eyed grace such as Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven or even Mad Men. These moments come when you see a maid absurdly vacuuming a large stuffed bear or when one opines: "Love and hate are two horns on the same goat." Now that's the spirit!

But, no, the film falls too much in love with its vintage cars, period hairdos, quaint customs and ubiquitous cigarettes. It makes its points with set design and camera movements rather than a full exploration of the never-ending puzzlement of human malice and ignorance.

Release date Aug. 10 (Disney)
Cast Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Jessica Chastain, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek
Director-screenwriter Tate Taylor
Producers Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Brunson Green
Rated PG-13, 146 minutes