Cult director John Waters has never been nominated for an Oscar, but if you think about it, Tate Taylor's "The Help" -- a shoo-in for a few little gold statues this year -- is essentially Waters's "Hairspray" dusted off and restructured for maximum award potential.
There is no jitterbugging or high-camp humor in "The Help," but both movies are set in the early '60s and involve a forward-thinking white gal who charms her way inside the African-American community, gains its trust, and brings about social change while exposing racists for what they are. Also, just like in the infamous scene in Waters' "Pink Flamingos" during which Divine eats dog poo, one of the maids in "The Help" serves up a pie made of her own excrement to her former employer. Bon appétit, Oscar watchers!
"The Help," based on Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name, focuses on a young woman named Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) who moves back home to Jackson, Mississippi, after graduating college. While all of her friends fuss about nothing more than being proper Southern ladies and making babies, Skeeter wants to become a writer and lands a job at a local paper writing a "homemaker hints" column. She starts interviewing her friends' African-American maids for tips, but becomes unnerved as she observes how disrespectfully -- and often inhumanely -- the help is treated.
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Skeeter, realizing that the maids' stories would make an excellent story, pitches the idea to an editor in New York, who seems game to the idea if Skeeter can get any of the help to talk. At first, no one wants to open up to Skeeter because the maids are afraid of losing their jobs; but middle-aged Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) soon cracks and tells Skeeter her sad life story of raising white children instead of her own. Next, smart-mouthed Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a maid with a reputation for being difficult, decides to share some outrageous tales, and before long enough housekeepers are talking with Skeeter to get her book "The Help" published.
Although the book doesn't use real names, the worst white offenders -- especially Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the woman behind the "Home Help Sanitation Initiative" in favor of separate toilets for the help -- recognize the stories about them and are humiliated. The book gives Aibileen, Minny and the other maids the courage to face their oppressors and move on just as the Civil Rights Movement catches fire in the Deep South.
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Imagine the impact a movie like this would have had in the '60s instead of 50 years later, during a time when segregation is over and we have an African-American president. Instead, in 2011, "The Help" is a reminder of how far we've come since the "Mad Men" era and how far we still have to go for people of all colors, creeds and orientations to be treated with respect.
There are a lot of heavy moments in "The Help," but there is also some off-color humor that lightens the mood. There isn't a weak performance on display in "The Help": Howard is icily evil, Stone is perfectly cast as the maids' champion, Davis will likely get an Oscar nomination, and Spencer elicits many laughs as the wisecracking maid who serves up the infamous pie with a wink (to John Waters?) and a broad Southern smile.
Extras! Both the DVD and Blu-ray contain deleted scenes and Mary J. Blige's "The Living Proof" music video. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are more deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and "In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi."