The Help is the story of a novel published in the 1960s to expose the truth about the treatment of the ‘coloured help’ by white suburban housewives. The film is based upon a book of the same name by author Kathryn Stockett, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a young writer determined to impress a New York publishing house by writing something that she truly cares about: the subject, the help. Whilst eagerly anticipating her upcoming role as Gwen Stacy in the new The Amazing Spider-Man movie (out this summer), I re-visited this film which I consider a recent favourite. Stone’s character realises the influence and importance of the maids in the upbringing of white children, and sets out to investigate how they feel about their second class citizenship in spite of their responsibilities and key roles in the raising of future generations. What is interesting in The Help is the way in which these white children love their nannies, yet grow up to become close-minded, power-hungry housewives and refuse their maids even the generosity of an indoor toilet.
The wash room debate sparks off the story, as Skeeter embarks on a mission to interview and record the feelings of the maids in her town of Jackson. Aibileen (Viola Davis) is the first maid to agree to talk candidly about her experiences, and sets the ball rolling. Davis received numerous nominations and awards for her role, and all are entirely deserved. Her portrayal of an intelligent black woman, struggling to make a living in a society that judges the colour of her skin over her ability to instil confidence and love in children, is captivating. Davis plays the role with grace and dignity, her subtle acting style complimenting the part and paying respect to such an important issue. Throughout the film, we learn about Aibileen’s life, which is treated as an example of most maids at that time; how she began her life as a nanny at the tender age of 14 and worked to raise white children whilst her own, sorrowfully, remained at home, raising themselves. Aibileen calls the children she raises her ‘babies’, totalling 17 in all, showing the love and commitment to her work which is completely ignored by the housewives.
Throughout the film, there is a sense of respect and gravity about the matter in hand: rather than producing a scandalous, corporate blockbuster, director Tate Taylor treats the subject matter with reverence, and the cast, score and script work together to create a beautifully paced drama. Although at times the story may seem slow, this aptly reflects the struggle of the Civil Rights movement, showing that change is not easy, or quick to incur.
The Help not only exposes truths about racism and prejudice against maids in Jackson, Mississippi, but also other social issues affecting women. Minny (Octavia Spencer) not only faces harsh treatment at work, but returns home to an abusive husband. Church, for the help, is portrayed as one of the few places they can feel safe and fearless, and religion was clearly a saving grace for black people at the time.
Spencer also contributes to most of the more light-hearted moments in the film, with impeccable comic timing, especially in her scenes with the dragon-like Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the poor, misunderstood Celia Foote(Jessica Chastain), who is one of my favourite characters. Hilly’s mother, played by Sissy Spacek is also brilliantly funny, especially in the infamous pie scene.
As well as the help, the housewives themselves are portrayed as trouble-ridden and unhappy. Although their problems are on an individual level, what I liked about Taylor’s direction was that the housewives are not just robots: most of them are influenced by women they see as powerful (like Hilly), whilst others are just cowards – this is especially relevant to Skeeter’s mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) who tells her daughter that ‘courage sometimes skips a generation’.
A fantastic film, and one that raises some important racial and gender issues, as well as providing light comedy. Taylor has produced a fine work here, ever-respectful to the subject matter as well as brilliantly written and directed.