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Crossing the lines; In the '60s South, a young writer shows compassion for black women who serve upper class whites

Whoopi Goldberg was right.

Unfortunately, she spent a couple public decades being slightly ashamed of being right.

Long before the current heavyweight tearjerker "The Help" was poised to become a hit, she played a maid in two other movies -- "Clara's Heart" and "The Long Walk Home." With nearly infallible instincts, she knew that it was a great American subject that American movies needed to explore. It was especially rich for an extremely gifted and accomplished African-American actress, no longer young, who was never going to be in the cinematic sex bomb business.

And now, decades after Whoopi in her movies and in the post-Oprah era, we have "The Help." It's based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel about black women in domestic service in 1963, their white employers and the children they were paid to "mind" (i.e. love, almost as if they were their own).

And therein lies the reason it's such a great American subject from the '50s and '60s, the era that, courtesy of TV's "Mad Men" and what it has wrought, the media will be diving into with both feet in the next couple months.

Upper-middle-class- and upper-class white children at the time could have a unique racial perspective denied to most of the white middle class.

It was an era that did everything possible to keep races separate. And with every ridiculous and often vile piece of white American mythology about black people (the queen bee monstrosity in "The Help" confidently declares "they have different diseases than we do"), those well-off white kids could check it against the domestic servants in their own home who were hired -- as often as not -- to provide intimate emotional sustenance for them that their own parents couldn't (or wouldn't).

It is no accident that the Kennedys in the 1960s found it so easy to be allied with the exploding civil rights movement. They knew things about black people that the white middle class generally didn't.

That rich and profound relationship -- so easily caricatured or treated with contempt -- has been largely ignored in books and movies. (Carson McCuller's "Member of the Wedding" was the first feint at giving it its due.)

And then came Stockett's novel, "The Help," which posits one of those white children, now grown, back in her hometown and writing down the lives and secrets of "the help," i.e. those black women in domestic maid's uniforms in charge of domestic order in her upper-class Southern world.

The only thing wrong with the film's treatment of this huge and hugely neglected subject is that its setting in the South of 50 years ago makes it appallingly easy for 21st century Northerners to watch it as if it were as distant as Nazi Germany in the '40s.

Stockett trusted a friend -- Tate Taylor -- to write and direct the adaptation of her book, and the result has the flaws of a movie an author trusted a friend to make. Most notably, it is too long at more than two hours, as if a friend struggled to include everything pertinent in the original novel.

But that specific Southern period setting means that the white women we're watching can be painted as being close to monsters: the vicious, backbiting queen bee who's so adamant about not allowing "the help" to use her family's indoor plumbing that she wants it made into Mississippi law; the mother so dependent on the family maid Aibileen that she continues having children she has little or no interest in actually raising herself.

It is only in the last 15 minutes of the film that it even allows the possibility that there may have been white males who weren't themselves complicit with vicious social oppression or merely spineless, racist meal tickets.

It's all about a spoiled and vile world of white privilege that demeans the black women it employs at every possible opportunity. And it's about how those women cope.

And, most importantly, how they wind up telling their stories to the young white woman who comes back from college ready to admit to her mother about the domestic "help" -- "we love them and they love us, but they can't even use the toilet in our house."

By the time it all plays out, it's manipulative tearjerking shlock not far from the well-plowed cornrows of "Steel Magnolias" and "Driving Miss Daisy," but so powerful -- and fresh -- is the subject even now and so formidable the performances that this is one heavyweight weeper that gets where it's going with nothing but honor.

Emma Stone is funny, lovable and just a bit dangerous in her naivete as the young writer whose return home instigates the sudden ugly lurch of truth about white privilege from those treated most harshly by it.

But key to the film's success is one of the great working actresses in American movies -- Viola Davis, whose performance in "Doubt" with Meryl Streep was nominated for -- and should have won -- a supporting actress Oscar. She has been a profoundly moving performer now in two similar roles -- so much so that the only worry is that she'll be typecast and prohibited from being just as prominent in entirely different circumstances.

Director Taylor's relative inexperience didn't deter him a bit in getting two rich and fine performances from two actresses who appeared in his negligible first major full-length movie, "Pretty Ugly People," Allison Janney and, as Davis' best friend, Octavia Spencer.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays the monster queen bee role of this enclosed, racist world with chilling conviction.

Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek show up in minor roles to give the whole project a benediction from older actresses who, 30 years before, might have relished this movie's main roles.

They knew, to be sure, when a great American subject was finally going to get its due in film, as shameless and manipulative as that movie turned out to be.



The Help

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek and Bryce Dallas Howard in Tate Taylor's adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-seller about housemaids and their employers in 1963 Jackson, Miss.

Rated PG-13; now playing.

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