‘Help’: Maid in the ‘60s

"THE HELP" IS surely the first civil rights movie that comes with its own special on the Home Shopping Network.

Last week HSN staged a "multi-platform exclusive shopping event" at which folks could buy "impeccable '60s-style apparel with bold flowery prints and whimsical silhouettes."

One caveat: Almost all of the bold flowery prints and whimsical silhouettes in the movie are worn by racists - well-to-do Mississippi matriarchs who leave the child-rearing, cooking and cleaning to their black maids, then fire them for using the front door.

It all seems a little tacky, but viewers these days seem to want their historical fiction to accessorize, and to do so smartly.

Indeed there is something "Mad Men"-ish about "The Help," a movie that invites us to gawk at the spectacle of racism and white privilege much as "Mad Men" ogles sexism and male privilege. We condemn the entitled behavior, even as we admire the cut of Don Draper's suit.

"The Help," also set in the early '60s, is "Mad Men" south. It's a retro spectacle of mossy mansions, pearls, pill box hats and white gloves. The talk is of no-wax floors, and there are soliloquies about how all great meals start with Crisco.

Your arteries harden just watching that scene, but that's part of the appeal. You knew "Mad Men" was going to be a hit as soon as you saw the pregnant woman smoking a cigarette.

These history lessons are time-warp voyeurism, a chance to witness behavior long since banished from public view.

"The Help," is adapted from the Kathryn Stockett novel that tries to explain how white Southerners raised with love by black women - and who often returned that love - can accept, as adults, a society that oppresses these same women.

The book was hugely popular, but attacked in some quarters for the way Stockett clumsily tried to approximate the language of the African-American characters.

Here's where a movie can do books like "The Help" a great service. Instead of a white author's approximation of an African-American woman, you get Viola Davis, Oscar nominee and Tony winner, who turns the movie's one indispensable character into someone plausible.

Davis plays Aibileen, cook/nanny/maid to one of the many Jackson women in thrall to a wicked queen bee (Bryce Dallas Howard) who's launching a campaign to force all Jackson domestics to use outdoor bathrooms, on the grounds that the women carry disease.

The bathroom campaign symbolizes the way maids are systematically, ritually humiliated, no matter how loyal or loving their service. There are effective scenes of Aibileen mothering her ditzy employer's chubby, neglected daughter, adding sting to the subsequent scenes of Aibileen's casual mistreatment.

As the abuse mounts, Aibileen and others find an outlet for their frustration. A local college grad turned idealistic reporter (Emma Stone) wants to collect and chronicle their stories.

These stories have the capacity to reverse Jackson's one-sided game of racial/social humiliation, and Aibileen begins to sense and enjoy this power. As she and others (notably co-star Octavia Spencer) tell their own stories, of their own families, marriages, children, they also start to dismantle the movie stereotype of uniformed, subservient "help," seen and not heard.

As Davis reveals and develops her character, she often gets help from director Tate Taylor that she doesn't need. Taylor uses showy camera moves, portentous edits and (especially) swelling music to announce big emotional cues.

And when Davis is offscreen, "The Help" feels like a soapy spectacle, a couple of hundred miles east of "Dallas."

"The Help" works best in its quieter moments. Stockett intended her book as a tribute to the black woman who raised her, and there is a telling, touching authenticity to those moments when Aibileen dotes on her surrogate daughter. There's such conviction, you wonder if she's a surrogate at all.

The Help

Directed by Tate Taylor. With Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogel, Chris Lowell, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer. Distributed by Dreamworks Studios.

Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for thematic material).