Mr. Movie

'The Help' offers lessons on civics, civil rights

Movies sometimes make great classrooms.

The Help is a history lesson. Racism is the topic.

The film paints a fascinating picture of one aspect of racism in the deep South in the 1960s. The story is set in the social make-up of wealthier families. Moms kept the family properly connected, and dads worked.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

Maids — the story says — raised the children. The injustice being that once the kids reached an accountable age, social pressure forced them to become as shallow as their parents and treat the women who loved and nurtured them as inferior, and somewhat less than human.

The wealthy and socially connected Hilly Holbrook wants to pass legislation requiring all “Negro” workers in the homes of the wealthy to have their own toilets and not use those of their employers. “They have different diseases than we do,” the woman hisses.

Justice is served through Emma Stone’s (Easy A) Skeeter Phelan. The former BFF of the hated Hilly wants to be a journalist and is connected to a New York publisher that wants a book. Skeeter asks the maids in her small town to tell their stories.

Viola Davis (Doubt) is the first maid to risk it all. She’s a shoo-in for award accolades at year’s end.

Davis will likely be joined by an equally terrific Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter and Ron’s daughter) as the vile villain. Also noteworthy are comic turns by Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) and a very sassy Sissy Spacek.

They are helped by Stone, who anchors the film, Octavia Spencer, a rare performance from Cicely Tyson and the always outstanding Allison Janney.

Based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel, their stories and the stories of the people and children they serve are woven through writer/director Tate Taylor’s complex, detailed movie. It's too detailed to delve into that deeply. Let’s just say the story moves right along and for the most part is riveting.

The 1960s produced a number of important movements. None got more attention, or attracted more followers of all ages and races, than the civil rights movement. Of the era’s icons, Martin Luther King was my personal hero. His message rang true. We ought to be called to account — he said — for the content of our character and not the color of our skin.

So simple. So just. So fair.

The voice of reason, truth and justice was silenced on an April day in 1968. His message was not. King led a movement. He was the inspiration. The little people following him did the work. They were maligned, beaten, jailed and murdered, but they kept moving forward.

Civil rights legislation got passed. A shaky equilibrium was found. Some say it is still shaky. Others say not. History will tell. Maybe the answer to the question is found in perspective. After all, it has been 60 years since the movement began in earnest and almost 50 since President Lyndon Johnson signed the original civil rights legislation.

The stories of the characters in The Help give us a perspective. They show us where we once were as a nation and as a people, and how brave, selfless souls won thousands of the little skirmishes that eventually won a just war.

You can take that lesson a step further. In a decade filled with partisan bickering, conflict and war, debt and deficits, and a bitter battle over the direction our nation is traveling, this movie reminds us that we are in this together. While politicians pose, posture and pontificate, we the people can and must take over. It is up to us — as it was for those brave people in the 1960s — to bring about the change we so desperately seek and need.

Is that the message of The Help? Probably not, but it’s what I took away.

Mr. Movie rating: 4 stars

Rated PG-13 for mature themes. It opened Wednesday, Aug. 10 at Regal’s Columbia Center 8 and at the Fairchild Cinemas 12.

5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen

4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.

3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.

2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.

0 stars: Speaks for itself.