By Caitlyn Collins | August 10, 2011
Writers: Tate Taylor (screenplay), Kathryn Stockett (novel)
Starring: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anna Camp, Allison Janney, Jessica Chastain
The 1960’s both fascinate and anger me for various reasons, but mostly for the political turmoil of the decade. I’m sure future generations will feel the same way about the 2000’s. The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, is set in Mississippi during the start of the civil rights movement. The film is based on the novel written by Kathryn Stockett. It’s a story of hope and courage during a time when both seemed impossible.
Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi after being away at Ol’ Miss for four years. She has aspirations toward becoming a writer and finding a job in New York City. In fact, she uses a rejection letter that praises her work while lamenting her lack of experience, as a reference for a job with the Jackson newspaper. The editor gives her the task of taking over a cleaning column, something she knows absolutely nothing about as she’s a privileged white Southerner. Skeeter, however, is grateful for the job and the chance to write.
After leaving the newspaper, she makes her way to the home of her old friend, Jolene French (Anna Camp), to reunite with friends and play bridge. One such friend, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is really Skeeter’s “frenemy”. Hilly is the quintessential Southern belle and gets under your skin from the moment of her introduction. She’s pompous, racist and a manipulator who controls her friends through intimidation. Howard plays her flawlessly.
Jolene’s maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis) is the film’s heroine. Aibileen cooks, cleans, shops for and raises Jolene’s daughter Mae Mobley six days a week. Jolene could not function without her just as Hilly would not be able to function without her maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Skeeter announces her position with the newspaper much to the dismay of her friends who believe her time and effort would be better spent finding a husband than working. Since Skeeter knows nothing of household responsibilities, she asks Jolene for Aibileen’s assistance.
Hilly also has an announcement; she’s sent a proposal to the governor to make segregated household bathrooms state law. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are all appalled but not entirely shocked by her actions. Skeeter decides after her first meeting with Aibileen, which Jolene quickly decides cannot continue, that she wants to write about the perspective of the help. She enlists Aibileen’s assistance who has serious trepidations initially, but decides she has to tell her story to stop the actions of people like Hilly Holbrook. Fiery Minny thinks it the worst idea in the world and refuses to cooperate. She too changes her mind and both Aibileen and Minny dictate to Skeeter their experiences, for better or worse, about working for Jackson’s elite whites.
All the while Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), is desperate for her daughter to find a husband even asking her at one point if she has “unnatural thoughts” about women. Hilly is also concerned about Skeeter’s single status and sets her up with Stuart (Chris Lowell). The introduction of a love interest was completely superfluous to the story, and was in no way a dominate storyline, something I was quite happy with.
The real interest lies in seeing how Aibileen, Minny and presumably most of the maids of Jackson are treated by their employers. The struggles they go through with raising white children while their own are often left behind. Eventually Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are able to convince a large group of women to open up and have their tales recorded. Many reflect the kindness of employers, some the mishaps of newlywed wives and others, such as Minny’s, are tales of revenge.
Minny is fired by Hilly for daring to attempt to use the bathroom indoors, the white bathroom. She’s eventually hired by Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) a clueless blond desperate to make friends with Hilly yet constantly snubbed by her. Celia is kind and treats Minny as an actual person, one she greatly cares for, rather than a piece of property. Before she starts her new job, however, Minny bakes one of her famous chocolate pies for Hilly using a special ingredient!
All of the characters grow from the experience of working together, learning to trust one another in a way that none has truly experienced before their project. Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter all learn to be more assertive and confident whether saying no to an employer or rejecting a boyfriend because he disagrees with your actions.
The Help definitely leans toward the sentimental side, but it is not a sappy film. It’s a story about seeing beyond race or class and learning to be yourself. Genuinely funny moments weave their way throughout the film relieving some of the tension of the subject. While the film is not without controversy (white author and director, black maids), it is well cast and well-acted. As Spencer said in Entertainment Weekly, “Viola Davis plays a maid and gives the f-ing performance of her life.”