In 2009, the book “The Help” was released and spent more then 100 weeks on bestseller lists. It chronicled the fictional stories of Aibileen Clark, a poor African American lady who works for rich, white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. The book was written by Kathryn Stockett, a Caucasian lady who was inspired by an African American maid who worked for her family when she was a child. This, of course, drew lots of controversy — what would she know about the experiences she’s writing about? Would this book and movie have gotten the same backing if a black person wrote it? All of which goes to show that questions of racial equality are still alive and well today, and though we have an African American in the White House we still have not only a lot of callous people . . . but also a lot of exposed nerves.
The Help tells the story of three women who build unlikely friendships around a secret writing project which, if found out, would put them all in great danger. The unfortunately named Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (played by Emma Stone in Shirley Temple curls) wants a career writing. When she lands a job writing a cleaning tips column for the local paper she seeks help from Aibileen (played by Viola Davis in a performance I hope will get her an Oscar nomination) her best friend’s maid. Along with Aibileen’s best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) they begin to tell Skeeter their stories about what it’s like being a maid in Jackson Mississippi.
As this is a Dreamworks film (and therefore, a Disney film) this film has all the spit and polish sheen you would expect from a Disney film — full of morals and morsels of quaint truths lying around for the picking. That’s not to say that it isn’t good, because I think it is. That’s to say that they played it very safe with the material they were given. This isn’t The Color Purple. Heck, this isn’t even Driving Miss Daisy. An incident of spousal abuse is played out off screen and racial fuelled violence is heard over the radio. This is a piece of art finely tuned so that it would not offend anyone.
This film passes the Bechdel Test (look it up) — not something I can type often so I take the chance when I can. Though most of the women in this film are portrayed as gossipy, bitter, shallow minded hens, it makes it that much easier to delineate the goodies from the baddies. The performances are the reason to see The Help, especially Viola Davis whose courageous acting — willing to be filmed in unflattering ways if it is in favor of the character — anchors this movie and really punches up the film’s most heartfelt moments. Her eyes can convey all the sadness in the world. Emma Stone’s Skeeter is the typical girl ahead of her time; the types put into these kinds of movies so that we can laugh at the backwards thinking of people at that time and pat ourselves on the back because we’ve come so far. What? She doesn’t want to be married? She doesn’t care about having children? Instead she wants a career and finds people of a different race to actually be people and not chattel? Scandal!!
Jessica Chastain (most recently seen in Malick’s The Tree of Life) is a revelation in this role as Celia Foote, the girl who lives in the outskirts of town and is shunned by all the socialites. She had quite a bit of heavy lifting and some on-a-dime turns to do, and Jessica more than succeeds. Side Note: Did the casting directors purposefully go after all the redheads (Stone, Howard, Chastain) in Hollywood? If so, Julianne Moore and Amy Adams are still waiting for their auditions.
There are a couple of storytelling missteps in this movie. The Help begins in the middle of the story with Aibileen already telling Skeeter her stories though the first Act is Skeeter trying to convince Aibileen to tell her stories, which kinda takes the suspenseful wind out of your sails. Then there’s a subplot of Skeeter’s boyfriend which felt a little tacked on and ended very abruptly. That said, what the story did very well is convey the equality of all people. There were, as there are today, people on both sides of the racial divide that are mean and rude and spiteful. Just as there were, and still are, people whose feelings are hurt because a mean, rude and/or spiteful person, regardless of race, age, creed or conviction, did not understand that hate affects everyone equally.