As a book and a movie and a social phenomenon, "The Help" functions as a kind of Rorschach test that measures how you feel about the history of racial inequality in America. Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel is set in the profoundly segregated and hierarchical Deep South of the Jim Crow era, nearly half a century ago, and writer-director Tate Taylor's handsome and largely admirable film adaptation captures the time and place in ravishing detail. "The Help" definitely worked on me as a consummate tear-jerker with a terrific cast, and it's pretty much the summer's only decent Hollywood drama. You could also describe it as an accretion of familiar ingredients: "Mad Men" plus "Steel Magnolias" plus "To Kill a Mockingbird" plus "Mississippi Burning."
As I say, on the surface of things "The Help" is set in a distant galaxy, far, far away. It would be ludicrous to claim that things have not changed for black people in America. Somehow or other we apparently elected an African-American president -- please hold all the hate mail, just for a second! -- and even in Jackson, Miss., I doubt anyone makes the "colored maid" use an outdoor toilet these days. But you don't have to be some kind of raving leftist to see that "The Help" masquerades as an inspiring entertainment but also, along the way, invites us to look closely at contemporary attitudes and contemporary inequality, and not to feel too superior to the benighted past.
See www.salon.com for full review