This was as brazen an Oscar-baiter as we can imagine, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller about a group of black maids in early 1960s Mississippi publishing a collective memoir. Yes, it gets a bit sentimental. Yes, some Ya-Ya Sisterhood friendship clichés creep in. Yes, it glosses history. But it’s also heartfelt, hilarious and the cast is a dream-team topped by Viola Davis. What’s more, it hinges on a gross-out scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Waters film.
Emma Stone plays a white college graduate, Skeeter, who persuades her best friend’s black maid, Aibileen (Davis), to write about working for white families. Nowhere is the vile hypocrisy of ‘separate but equal’ more apparent than in the maid-employer relationship. White employers won’t even touch their maids, yet these women are raising their kids, drying tears and kissing scraped knees. Davis deserves the nominations that came her way; she’s deeply moving as Aibileen, who has brought up 17 white children and whose own son died in an accident. Octavia Spencer is hilarious as her best friend Minny – and there are good comic turns from Sissy Spacek and Jessica Chastain.
This is the same era as Mad Men, but Mississippi is a long way from New York, and the maids’ employers make Betty Draper look like a radical feminist. The meanest of the mean girls is Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, acidly amusing), who sacks a maid for using her toilet, prompting that revoltingly funny gag.