On the surface, The Help is strictly a woman’s film, concerned with domestic issues in Jackson, Mississippi circa the early sixties. It seems to be mainly about raising babies by black maids who are relegated to cleaning upscale houses, cooking meals and tending to little toddlers and putting up with insults while their employers–a gaggle of pampered, gushing and downright silly members of the Junior League–are off displaying their tea dresses, coiffed hair dos, gossiping, playing bridge and coming up with events and “worthwhile” activities to mindlessly while away their time.
The worst of these, a segregationist by the name of Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), is preoccupied with such projects as ensuring that black maids do not use toilets in white women’s homes for sanitation reasons and attempting to make certain that our far more liberal heroine Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has just graduated from Ole Miss and is starting her journalism career at the local paper, announces this initiative in her column.
On the other hand, though the men for the most part are almost invisible, the marvelous actress Viola Davis who plays the leading character of Aibileen, lets us know and feel that the threat is out there and practically governs what’s really going on. In other words, in a sense, a vague background becomes front and center if you think about it. We learn that Aibileen’s son was severely injured in a mill accident a few years back and was dumped in a truck by his white bosses and then dumped again in front of an ill-equipped “colored” hospital. With no other recourse, Aibileen took him home where he subsequently died. Going back to her shabby shotgun shack one night after her chores, she is ordered off the bus when news leaks out that a black man has been shot. Though nothing much is made of it in the film, the victim in question was the civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was shot in the back in the dark in front of his home by the avowed racist Byron DeLa Beckwith. Beckwith, in turn, was a member of the White Citizens Council sometimes known as the “uptown Klan”—a powerful group of white supremacists openly opposed to desegregation, voting rights for Negroes and any change in the social structure. Anyone in favor of civil rights (white or black) soon found themselves unemployed and business owners found their livelihood boycotted.
It’s against this backdrop and palpable white male domination that the Junior League women are free to carry on and the black maids almost visibly shudder when deciding under the cover of darkness whether or not to tell of their plight. The movie unfolds (also undercover) as Skeeter tries to eke their tales out for all to read in what eventually becomes a best-selling book called The Help.
However, it’s still not that simple. Prejudice extends to Celia, another white woman in town (the multi-talented Jessica Chastain) who is shunned by the League who treat her as a white-trash bimbo even though she lives in perhaps the biggest mansion in town. Aibileen’s best friend Minny, can’t seem to help her sassy nature, gets fired and goes to work for Celia who desperately needs help as a housewife and cook. Moreover, Skeeter’s ill mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) is both under the thumb of the prejudiced ladies auxillary and ashamed of firing Constantine, their longtime maid and caretaker, the very one who raised Skeeter and also helped to raise Skeeter’s consciousness about the bigotry of her so-called friends and fellow League “sisters.”
Behind the whole project, what’s interesting to learn is that the author, Kathryn Stockett, was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1969 and was brought up by the family’s black maid, Demetrie McLorn. Ms. Stockett began to write her popular book, The Help, about ten years ago, published it in 2009, and sold over a million in the first year. What this means is that the viewer has to realize some rather complicated things, especially if he or she is not familiar with all the ins and outs of the story about this story.
First of all, the book or the film is “practically” pure fiction. The viewer may think that the character Skeeter (played so well by Emma Stone) is really about the author, Ms. Stockett. After all, Skeeter is interviewing the black maids (in the 1960s during the civil rights movement) and is writing a book based on those quoted interviews, therefore, we would assume, a non-fiction book. The white Jr. League women in the book (and therefore in the movie) are defensive, shocked, angry and quite capable of fighting back (firing the maids) except they don’t want anyone to know who they are. In Skeeter’s book the white women are not mentioned by name but they know who they are as well as knowing who the black maids are. In fact, this leads to a big scene between Aibileen and Hilly. The ultimate question becomes: is this fiction or non-fiction or both? And this confusion may be the most interesting dilemma Ms. Stockett has offered to the “writing/adapting/filming” world. In addition to everything else, her childhood friend Tate Taylor, adapted and directed the film, while a Vanity Fair photo shows that Ms. Stockett and Ms. Stone, look so similar. That’s pretty close for comfort.
Speaking of the actors, it’s wonderful to be able to mention some excellent women playing some of the film’s fine characters such as: Viola Davis as Aibileen who had a small but powerful part in Doubt; Jessica Chastain as Celia, the so-called white-trash person who becomes close friends with her black maid, Minny, played with strong, angry humor by Octavia Spencer (Ms. Chastain recently played the sweet, gentle mother in The Tree of Life, the great new film by Terence Malick). It’s heartening to see such good work when it does happen in the movies.
It is also worth mentioning the real sense of place achieved by the technical work on this movie. The production design by Mark Ricker puts us right in the middle of Jackson with beautiful wide, leafy streets made up of muddy roads as well as asphalt lined by long, ranch-style houses as well as the mansion-like ones where the maids go to work. The lighting captured the bright southern sunlight, as the costumes by Sharen Davis seemed so memorably perfect.
All in all, how nice it would have been if the black congregation in Jackson had actually applauded a real life Aibileen and Minny for exposing the bigotry and hypocrisy during those heady times.