On June 12, 1963, one day after President Kennedy’s nationally televised civil-rights address calling for an end to segregation and greater protection for voting rights, civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, who had campaigned against segregation at the University of Mississippi, was assassinated at his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
The Help notes these landmark events, though it’s more concerned with racism and segregation on a domestic and parochial scale. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling 2009 novel, The Help is largely about the daily humiliations and injustices to which black maids and nannies working in white homes were subject, and the invisibility of these humiliations to white society — until, in this fictional account, their stories are finally told, first in secret and then in public.
Among the daily humiliations, the one that looms largest is the toilet stigma. Before his Ole Miss campaign, Evers organized a boycott targeting service stations that denied blacks the use of their toilets. Apparently the bathroom policy was not ubiquitous to all service stations; one had the option of going on to the next station. If you are a maid, you can’t just go on to the next house — particularly if Hilly Holbrook has her way.
“It’s not sanitary,” Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) explains matter-of-factly to her coterie while Abileen (Viola Davis) stands invisibly by. “They have different diseases than we do.”
Hilly spends much of the film promoting an initiative to requiring every white home to have separate bathrooms for the help. In practice, Hilly’s initiative will often mean a stand-alone addition, unheated, with no direct access from the house, requiring a maid or nanny to brave the elements every time she needs to use the toilet.
Hilly also spends much of the film trying to get an announcement about her bathroom initiative in the Junior League newsletter, edited by Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). Skeeter, a recent Ole Miss graduate and aspiring writer, spends much of the film deliberately procrastinating on Hilly’s increasingly pointed reminders while surreptitiously working on an initiative of her own.
Hired by the local paper to pinch-hit on a domestic advice column, the domestically challenged Skeeter turns for the voice of experience to Abileen. Skeeter’s heart isn’t in the column, though — and she quickly senses that Abileen, who prides herself on having raised over a dozen white babies along with doing the cooking and cleaning, has more to share with the world than cleaning tips. And so may her friends, like smart-mouthed Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer).
An insightful and complex film could be made from this material — a film that would be praised by critics, and would play in limited release to modest audiences before fading quietly from theaters. The Help takes a tidier, more crowd-pleasing Hollywood approach. There are winsome heroines warmly vindicated, a hissable villain whose multiple helpings of comeuppance are shudderingly unsanitary, er, complete, and a mass of people largely let off the hook. In the process, few if any unsettling questions are asked.
One human being stands above the types and stock characters: Davis’s Aibilene. Davis is always a formidable presence in any film, even in smaller supporting parts. Here, in a key role, she doesn’t just carry the film, she lifts it on her weary shoulders and infuses her scenes and relationships with a poignancy transcending The Help’s more formulaic bits.
Of all the movie’s characters, only Aibilene seems to fully inhabit a world of lasting and tragic consequences. If Minny and Skeeter each have a foot in such a world, it’s partly because of their connection to Aibilene. (For example, Aibilene’s experiences raising her young children come to a heartbreaking end that resonates with a revelation about an event in Skeeter’s household, adding emotional depth to the latter.)
Other performances, including Howard and Spencer, aren’t bad — just on a par with the movie’s broader flourishes. Flourishes like a chubby tot sanctimoniously declaring to Aibilene “You’re my real mother,” or like Skeeter’s anxious mother (Allison Janney) oh-so-benightedly fretting that her career-minded daughter’s non-marriage-mindedness could reflect “unnatural desires,” and musing about “a root that cures that.”
Racism and sexism (and, in that exchange about unnatural desires, homophobia) are rolled into a condescending/flattering portrait (condescending to them, flattering to us) of a white Southern middle-class culture too empty-headed, ignorant and ridiculous to be either very hateful or very formidable. I like the comment of my friend Darrel Manson at Arts & Faith: Judging from this film, “if the Klan and others were worried about saving white southern womanhood, there was really nothing there worth saving.” Nor anything really worth condemning either, if not for the occasional bad apple like Hilly spoiling the barrel.
The Help scapegoats Hilly (and, offscreen, another Hillyesque character) for pressuring others to conform. Only those of uncommon character, like Skeeter — or those who are already non grata, like Celia Foote (The Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain), ostracized both for being white trash and for allegedly stealing another woman’s beau — dare cross social lines. All the Mean Girls comparisons out there are pretty much on the money.
One of the nice bits is the positive depiction of the church and the black community’s faith. A church service scene in which a charismatic preacher connects the Exodus story to his congregation’s challenges and responsibilities succeeds in joining spirituality and practical action, and there are references to prayer, God and even loving one’s enemies. On the other hand, it’s only black people who are allowed to have real spirituality. The only reference to religion I remember from a white character is Hilly’s hypocritical claim that her refusal to lend money to her maid is somehow based on Christian principles. (By the same token, Roger Ebert notes that all the white characters smoke, and all the black characters don’t.)
A cluster of controversies and charges have surrounded the book and the film. Was a real-life nanny named Ablene Cooper, who worked for Stockett’s brother, the unacknowledged model for Aibilene? Was it appropriate for Stockett, a white Jackson native (who, like her heroine Skeeter, attended Ole Miss and left Jackson for New York City) to appropriate the voices and stories of black maids?
Those questions aren’t relevant here, but here are two that are. First, does the film depict black men in an unfairly negative light? Minny’s husband is a drunken abuser, while the absent father of Aibilene’s son also seems to have been worthless. On the other hand, there’s the apparently upstanding preacher, among others. Still, there does seem to be a shortage of decent, supportive black husbands and fathers.
Second, is The Help one of those stories about oppression that turn out to be really about noble members of the oppressor class, like Mississippi Burning? Not really. Skeeter is gratifyingly enlightened, and she makes the telling of the maids’ stories possible, but in the end The Help is more about the maids’ courage than Skeeter’s heroism. The movie may trumpet the big “Horrible Awful” scene, with Minny’s indelible three-word malediction against Hilly, but the real turning point is a quiet moment in which Skeeter finds herself face to face with a roomful of maids — and it’s their decision, not Skeeter’s, on which the scene turns.
Available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo edition, The Help comes with a couple of notable featurettes arguably more interesting than the film itself. “The Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film” offers a 23-minute look at director Tate Taylor’s lifelong friendships with author Kathryn Stockett and actress Octavia Spencer, who not only plays Minnie but was Stockett’s model for the character. “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi” is a too-brief (12-minute) encounter with a number of former maids (including Taylor’s own childhood caregiver) and their daughters belatedly sharing real-life stories like their fictional counterparts in the story.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.