Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, The Help is about a peculiar social aspect of that time and place. White families of means employ black maids, who cook their food, clean their houses, and, most importantly, raise their children. These children consider these maids more maternal than their distant, social-climbing mothers, but when the time comes to employ their own maids, they resort to their ugly behavior, treating these women like chattel.
The Help focuses on a few households. One is taken care of by Aibilene (Viola Davis), who watches over the child of a woman who doesn’t even know to change the baby’s diapers. The other is the home of Hilly Holbrook, (Bryce Dallas Howard) the queen bee of Jackson society and as mean as a snake. She has a special obsession with toilets–she wants a law passed that all homes must have separate bathroom facilities for their colored help. She fires her maid Minnie (Octavia Spencer) for violating the code of the commode.
Then there’s Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), who went to college with more on her mind that snaring a husband. She is unmarried (something of a scandal) and gets a job with the newspaper writing a household hints column. But she has more serious literary ambitions. Sympathizing with the plight of these women, she endeavors to interview them for a book. After a series of indignities, she gains the trust of Aibilene and Minnie, and they tell their horror stories to her.
Of course how these women were treated is despicable, and only the members of Aryan Nation would think otherwise. But I wonder how many of the people watching this film today, cheering as Howard gets her particularly vile comeuppance, would have been the same people screaming epithets at those students as they tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, or cheered the death of Medgar Evers. I’m not immune from this–my grandparents weren’t exactly enlightened thinkers on race, and used the N-word casually. This film would have been courageous fifty years ago, and also impossible to release in the South. To watch it today from the safety of half a century seems like watching animals behind a wall of glass.
But The Help was made now, and I can’t judge it on any other terms. As such, it’s a crowd-pleasing absolution for white guilt. And where it succeeds more than other recent films is that the white eyes–Stone’s–aren’t the dominating feature of the film. This film instead belongs to Viola Davis. A similar film, The Blind Side, was all about deifying Sandra Bullock’s character, relegating the black character to the status of family pet. Davis’s Aibilene is no passive bystander. She is the focus of the film, and wears the indignity of her life on her face with such great skill that the faults of the film seem less magnified.
There are faults. A few subplots are either clumsy or bizarre. Once fired, Spencer gets a job with a woman (Jessica Chastain) who is ostracized by the other ladies, presumably because of her white trash origins. The relationship between the two takes on a strange, sit-com like quality. I was also completely uninterested in scenes involving in Stone’s love life. And the villains of the piece, led by Howard, are mostly cardboard.
But the heart of the story, Aibilene’s struggle to maintain her dignity in the face of appalling prejudice, makes this all worthwhile. Spencer is also quite good, giving the Aunt Jemima stereotype a boot in the pants. A lot of other familiar actresses, such as Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Mary Steenburgen, also turn in effective performances. Cicely Tyson is also moving in her brief role as the maid who raised Stone, but was sent away in a manner we don’t find out about until the end of the film.
Watching The Help I was reminded of when Roots first aired. Our family, like millions of others, were transfixed by the week it was on television, back in 1977. What a turning point in American cultural history it was when everyone, white people included, cheered when Ben Vereen told good old Lloyd Bridges that if he ever harmed one of his’n again, he’d kill him. That was almost 35 years ago. The Help doesn’t break any new ground, but at least it’s focused on the right character.
My grade for The Help: B-