When Tate Taylor set out to write his screenplay for The Help, he must have been nervous. Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel not only has a loyal fan base but a lot of detractors who felt they were being spoon-fed yet another story about helpless black victims and their selfless white savior a la The Blind Side. But The Help transcends such definitive lines in the sand by creating a story that focuses on individual characters navigating the complex and ultimately interdependent relationships between black maids and white socialites.
There are so many rich characters in this story, and subsequently more plot lines, that it can be hard to pinpoint precisely who this film is about. Perhaps it’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan’s (Emma Stone) story. An aspiring journalist and recent college graduate, Skeeter returns home to Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s to find that being a college educated woman doesn’t get you in any closer with the ladies at Bridge club. It also puts pressure on an already strained relationship with your mother whose only wish is to see you married. She is plucky though, and lands a job at the Jackson Journal writing a cleaning advice column.
Or maybe it’s Aibileen Clark’s (Viola Davis) story, she does narrate the entire film. Aibileen is a maid in Elizabeth Leefolt’s home, where her primary job is to raise Elizabeth’s little girl. One of the interesting subtexts running through this film is the notion that part of being a member of the married social elite in Jackson (and I assume elsewhere in the South) is having children, but not necessarily raising them. Like little puppies in designer carriers, children are merely accessories needed to paint a picture of southern societal bliss, the more beautiful the better. Aibileen’s little charge is all but dismissed by Elizabeth because of her heftier-than-desired stature, leaving Aibileen to instill in the child a sense of worth I imagine she herself questions on more than one occasion. We see that Aibileen all but raises this child as her own, and consequently, the moments between Aibileen and the little girl are among the most heartbreaking in the film.
Regardless of whether the film is about these two women, or the other superb characters in the supporting cast, it is certain that the film addresses the unique relationship between them. When Skeeter gets the idea to write a book from the maids’ perspective she is met with fear from Aibileen and downright hostility from the other maids who are suspicious of her motives. Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) is particularly wary. As the former maid to Jackson’s social “Queen Bee” Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Minny certainly has dirt to dish but doesn’t want to be taken advantage of by the willful Skeeter. But as racial tensions heighten in Jackson, Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids begin to realize that now more than ever their voice needs to be heard.
The partnership between Skeeter and the maids is the quintessential model for the interdependence of white and black women that permeates the entire movie. The maids need Skeeter’s help in getting their stories out and Skeeter needs the stories in order to get published, but at no point is Skeeter the owner of this project. Although Skeeter asks the questions, the maids, in particular Minny, orchestrate the conversation. Because their safety is most at risk they dictate not only the time and place of their meetings, but what is to be documented and how it is presented. From the moment each interview begins Skeeter simply becomes a pen and paper. The maids clearly run the show. The process ends up being a very cathartic experience for Skeeter, who actually contributes her own story about Constantine Jefferson, the maid who raised her and was her closest confidant when her own mother was distant. We see Constantine, played by the luminous Cicely Tyson, in a series of poignant flashbacks throughout the movie.
What began as a purely self-serving endeavor for Skeeter becomes a great source of strength for herself and the maids, in particular Aibileen and Minny. I don’t doubt that Aibileen and Minny weren’t aware of their inner strength or the knowledge that they had something important to say. What they lacked was the means of getting people to listen. In the end, Skeeter did not give these women their voices, she gave them an audience.
The Help is the most significant film production set in Mississippi since Oh Brother Where Are Thou?, and Taylor creates a film that never once makes a parody of its environment or its characters. The performances in this film are nothing short of brilliant, with Oscar buzz already thick in the air. Octavia Spencer is delightful as Minny bringing with her sharp wit and pitch-perfect comedic timing. Bryce Dallas Howard is too perfect as villain Hilly Holbrook, everything down to her sweet-as-pie expressions of contempt make the audience love to hate her. Viola Davis brings the heart of the film as Aibileen, and Sissy Spacek steals every scene as the slightly loopy Mother Holbrook. And I think it is safe to say that Emma Stone has successfully navigated her way to serious dramatic actor, proving she is a force to be reckoned with in the future.
Taylor assumes that the memory of the Civil Rights Movement lingers for most, so in terms of historical backdrop we only get brief snapshots that tie us to any particular timeline, namely the assassinations of Medgar Evers and JFK. I would have enjoyed more time and place descriptors, but for a two and a half hour movie, it’s all about the characters, and their development. And given the tapestry of beautiful personalities we are given in The Help, I am more than satisfied.