I really had my doubts about this movie, fearing that it would be another typical "white messiah helps African Americans in need" film. And, while there are some elements of that in here, thankfully, the film shows that the whites need help from the blacks, too, so it's not a one sided affair.
Set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, the story follows Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a recent college grad who, instead of hunting for a husband, wants to embark on a career as a writer. Inspired by her own upbringing and disgusted by the racism of her colleagues and friends she'd lost touch with, she decides to write about racial issues from the perspective of the help- the maids who spend their lives raising white children who sadly tend to grow up to be just like their parents.
Along the way, the film touches upon some really big issues, and gets into various facets of the time period during this volatile era. It's a noble and well meaning film, but, it still plays it safe and sugar coated for the most part. Oh sure, there are some times when it gets edgy, but ultimately the film fails to be as powerful as it should be since it doesn't take that many risks. Also, it doesn't help that it tries to do soo much, but handles it all by just glossing over thngs and painting with broad strokes.
The film gets the pont across of course, but the scholar in me can't help but take issue with the end result. Maybe had the script been more risky, less Hollywood, less feel good, and more concerned with why this era and all the minutae of race relations are so volatile, the end result could have been more powerful. That, and making it a miniseries to really flesh out the details and characterizations wouldn't have hurt, either.
I will defend this film though, because it at least tries to be important, even if it doesn't quite do it in the best way. That, and the acting is wonderful (for the most part), with some really great moments, and a decent balance between humor and heartbreaking. Indeed, this is a moving film, and I admittedly did tear up multiple times...just like I was supposed to.
Emma Stone is great as Skeeter, showing her range as an actress, with a solid turn in a rahter thankless role. Bryce Dalls Howard shines as the malevolently vile and racist socialite ringleader Hilly, although the part is written so cartoonishly, the one dimensionalness of the character takes off the edge and insight needed to make her seem like a real character. Still though, Howard sells it nicely. Jessica Chastain, as the outcast naive socialite with a white trash background is tricky. She seems cartoony at first, but Chastain's performance saves things, and the character does actually become one to care about, though some of the pandering is a bit uncomfortable. The real stars and emotional core of the film though, are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. They are the true focus of the film, and provide the strongest performances. They are the ones we care about the most, and the accolades they got were well deserved. Both Davis and Spencer got Oscar nods (with Spencer winning), and despite Spike Lee missing the point, this is a high point for the world of African American thespians. As much as I loved these two, especially Spencer, who steals both the dramatic and comedic scenes, I think my favortie performer had to be Sissy Spacek as Hilly's mother- a character who really draws some of the best non Spencer generated laughs.
Okay, so I've rambled on for quite a while with this one. I can't help it. Films like these just bring it out in me, and it's easy to get worked up with materia llike this. I'm giving this film extra credit for the cast, cinematography, performances, and nobleness of it all, though I just wish that people would be more fearless when dealing with material like this, no matter how painful or incendiary.