May 2024

The Help (2011)

helpDIRECTOR: Tate Taylor

CAST: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek


Perhaps the greatest value of The Help, like other films such as 12 Years a Slave or Selmais in reminding those too young to have first-hand experience of just how oppressive large sections of the United States were to their African-American inhabitants only a few short decades ago.  This is not some vague ancient history; people who grew up in the environment depicted onscreen are still alive today.  While The Help is not as hard-hitting as the films mentioned above—nor, to be fair, is that really its intention, and at times it outright aims for “feel good”—and is somewhat weakened by a tendency to paint with broad strokes and deal in black-and-white (no pun intended), it’s still a worthy time capsule that is sometimes inspiring, sometimes moving, and sometimes illuminating.  

It’s the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, a century after the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, but seemingly not all that much has really changed.  The poor African-American maids who serve the households of wealthy white women are not slaves, but it sometimes seems they might as well be; poorly-educated and with no other career prospects, they cook, clean, and virtually raise the white children themselves, while the mothers lord over them with imperious attitudes and meager wages.  Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), returning home from college, is a progressive-minded young woman who quickly becomes troubled by the unquestioning racism permeating her hometown and finds her sympathies might lie more with the hired help, women like Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), than with those she once thought of as friends—chiefly the society queen bee, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who presides over the local social club and uses it to push an agenda of even stricter segregation.  The more Skeeter bears witness to the system around her, the more disturbing she finds it.  As a means to jump-start her writing aspirations, Skeeter pitches an idea to a prominent New York City editor (Mary Steenburgen); she wants to write a book telling a perspective that no one ever talks about….the help, the black women who serve in silence.  Many are afraid to grant Skeeter an interview, fearing punishment if they speak out, but Aibileen and later Minny come onboard, and eventually others as well.

The Help basically plays out as interconnected individual stories drawn together by Skeeter’s book.  While Emma Stone is the ostensible lead, in some ways Viola Davis’ Aibileen is the real central character (and the most heartfelt one).  Her narration (in the form of interviews and stories she grants Skeeter) runs throughout the film, and she’s front-and-center in at least two of the movie’s most powerful scenes, one where she confides the sad fate of her son, and a climactic confrontation with Hilly.  Aibileen is a stoic woman who has spent her entire life since her teens essentially being a surrogate mother to a series of white children—children whom she loved, and who loved her, but some of whom in time became as callous as their largely absentee mothers.  She’s not a rebel or a troublemaker, and is initially fearful of opening up to Skeeter.  But as time goes by, her part in bringing The Help to life gives her a long overdue sense of self-empowerment.  Other significant subplots follow Skeeter’s contentious dynamic with her sickly mother (Allison Janney) and the truth of what really happened to Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the elderly maid who Skeeter viewed as a mother figure, and the uppity Minny being fired from Hilly’s cruel employment and finding both a new job and a budding friendship with the ditsy but kind-hearted Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who has her own conflict with Hilly, but while Skeeter and Minny’s stories both have their affecting moments, it’s Aibileen’s arc that really feels the most central and the best-developed.

The most glaring flaw of The Help is its tendency to paint in black-and-white with broad strokes (insofar as any character could be said to have much moral gray area, one could make a case for Skeeter’s mother Charlotte).  Our “villain”, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook, is over-the-top and caricaturish, and some of her scenes—one in which Skeeter pranks her by making a “misprint” in the local newspaper and getting used commodes delivered to her yard instead of used coats for a charity auction, and one near the climax where she goes berserk, weaving all over the road and chugging liquor—are overly broad and not up to the standards of the rest of the movie.  By contrast, while Hilly might as well have horns on her head, and her society girl sycophantic underlings are vapid airheads, the maids and Skeeter are unfailingly pure-hearted and virtuous.  Skeeter has some minor flaws—her outspokenness leads her to an overly harsh judgment of a would-be suitor, and she is initially naive about the danger she’s potentially putting Aibileen in by convincing her to write with her—but compared to Hilly, she might as well be wearing a halo.  A little more complexity and nuance in some of the characters might have made The Help a deeper and richer experience.  At least it doesn’t go the route of vilifying every white character.  In addition to Skeeter, the maids find at least one pair of sympathetic employers in Jessica Chastain’s Celia and her husband, who treat Minny as a friend more than a servant.  The silliness of the commode prank and Hilly’s climactic over-the-top meltdown are counterbalanced by nice, low-key moments like Celia ignoring “social etiquette” to eat lunch together with Minny rather than at her own large dining table, and also scenes of powerful emotion, such as Aibileen’s story of her son’s death and Skeeter’s mother confessing the truth about Skeeter’s beloved childhood maid Constantine (the flashback of which is the most heartbreaking scene of the movie).  Little details—such as the true fact that “publicly advocating racial equality” could get one arrested in 1960s Mississippi—are eye-opening and illuminating.  The small stories on-hand play out against the backdrop of infamous casualties of the 1960s civil rights movement, the murder of black activist Medgar Evers and the assassination of JFK, both of which are prominently referenced.  It’s in these lower-key, more down-to-earth scenes that The Help finds its heart and its value.

help2Emma Stone might be the lead, but while she does the best she can with a thinly-developed character, Skeeter remains bland and a bit of a plot device to weave the maids’ storylines together.  The real “star” of The Help is Viola Davis, whose Aibileen is a pillar of stoic, long-suffering inner strength who finds a sense of empowerment after decades of silent endurance.  Her acting is powerful and impassioned, and as worthy of Oscar notice as her previously nominated performance in 2008’s Doubt (where she earned a nod despite only appearing in a single lengthy scene).  Jessica Chastain, sporting platinum blond hair, gives an exuberant performance as the ditsy but sweet Celia, but her screentime (and thus character development) is more limited.  Solid supporting performances come from Octavia Spencer as the feisty Minny, and Allison Janney as Skeeter’s conflicted mother, while Sissy Spacek supplies a little comic relief as Hilly’s borderline senile mother, who might be a little sharper than her daughter thinks.  There are small roles for Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen, Dana Ivey, and David Oyelowo.

The Help is essentially a melodrama, which seeks to blend humor, “feel good” inspiration, heartbreak, and a history lesson into an uplifting main course.  Its desire to remain crowd-pleasing and “feel good” leaves it not pushing its PG-13 rating and shying away from any truly brutal or disturbing material, meaning it doesn’t achieve the power of some harder-hitting, more unflinching films set in the same time period and involving similar subject matter.  But it’s generally well-acted, entertaining and engaging, and while it doesn’t always reach the heights it aspires toward, more works than doesn’t work, and the strength of its powerful moments are more than worthy enough to earn it a recommendation despite its lesser segments.  The director of the film adaptation, Tate Taylor, is a longtime friend of the novel’s author Kathryn Stockett, and co-star Octavia Spencer is friends with both (Stockett has acknowledged that the character Minny was written with Spencer in mind), resulting in a faithful page-to-screen adaptation that should please fans of the source material.  As with many civil rights historical dramas, The Help was recognized by the Academy with a nomination for Best Picture, and cast members Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain also received Oscar nominations.  While I have no reservations about Davis’ nomination in particular, an Oscar nod for the film itself is a little unwarranted.  The Help is a nice little movie with some memorable moments, but it’s not one of the standout films about the civil rights movement.

* * *