Experiencing the subsets of society is always an interesting prospect, because these groups of people are usually identified by their group first and as a human being second. People want to know what it’s like to work in the medical, legal or law enforcement fields, which is why those television shows are so popular. The Help leverages that same curiosity, but instead choosing the Black housemaid community of Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s for the audience to infiltrate. The experience is thoroughly entertaining, heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking. It’s also straightforward and without any real surprises.
In Jackson, Mississippi, the women in the Black community are housemaids to the affluent White families. These maids cook, clean, and essentially raise their employers’ children. Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is one such maid who gets through her day with the friendship and company of fellow maid and best-cook-in-town Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Their lot in life isn’t pleasant, but they feel like they have very little recourse, so they remain quiet and endure.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson after graduating college. Single at 23, she’s eager to begin her career as a writer, and while she takes a position at the local paper writing advice columns, Skeeter feels like she needs to write something important to catch the eye of a big publishing company in New York. She decides to tell the stories of the “help” – the Black ladies who are intimately tied to every aspect of White society. Unfortunately, due to the stringent racist laws of the time, the women are reluctant to speak, but as race relations begin to deteriorate in town, Aibileen, Minny and many more come forward to share their experiences.
Based on the book of the same title, The Help is a dense movie, so some experience with the source material may aid in clearing up some confusion. The early and quick introduction of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who disappears from the screen for quite some time before her second appearance is a good example. Nevertheless, newcomers will find the film very approachable as writer/director Tate Taylor does a great job developing the many characters and their plots. Because so much is going on, however, The Help definitely feels like a film adaptation of a book, which is also reflected in its two-hour-long running time, but things never get so hectic or drawn out that they interfere with the enjoyment of the film.
The Help looks fantastic and does a wonderful job at capturing the aesthetic of the time, including the automobiles, hairdos and attire. The characterization of the society and interplay between Whites and Blacks, however, seems a little watered down and doesn’t go out of its way – save a few exceptions – to really show the racist circumstances that the Black community had to endure on a daily basis. Instead, the filmmakers leave the racist overtures to Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who’s pushing for a law to separate the bathrooms of Blacks and Whites and expects her maid to brave a tornado to get to an outhouse rather than share a restroom with her. While Hilly is a delicious villain played masterfully by Howard, the denigration and fear in which Blacks lived might have been a more dramatic enemy.
By and large, the women in the film turn in very natural performances that feel accurate for the period and location. Viola Davis strikes all the right notes with her portrayal of Aibileen. Her character, as performed by Davis, is extremely layered. As a mother who has lost her own child and must rear the child of another woman who has all but abandoned it, the harsh reality of the situation comes through strongly in Davis’ acting. Bryce Dallas Howard also deserves mention even though her performance may come off as mostly one-dimensional. It takes talent to remain unwaveringly cruel in every aspect of a character and Howard manages just that. Emma Stone stands out, but not in a flattering way. She doesn’t look or sound like anyone else. While that might be a choice to present Skeeter as an outsider with progressive values, it seems a little unbelievable that she wouldn’t have picked up at least a little bit of the accent or Southern sensibilities. Stone, who fits wonderfully and snappily in movies set in modern times, seems out of her element here.
While it lacks any surprising twists or turns, The Help is a wonderful film to share with adolescents because it covers so many themes, including mother and child relationships (specifically mothers and daughters), independence, ostracism, fear, death and inequality. In regards to race, the film thankfully doesn’t paint all White characters as evil and all Black characters as angels. As such, The Help offers plenty of fertile ground for discussion with young minds. Everyone else will just enjoy the straightforward storytelling and excellent acting.