“Did you know when you were a little girl one day you’d be a maid?” Asked from off-screen, the question hangs in the air for a moment. Aibileen (Viola Davis) nods, slightly. “Yes,” she says carefully, “My mama was a maid and my grandmother was a house slave.” Born in 1911 on a Mississippi plantation, Aibileen is remembering her life for Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate returned home to Jackson, where she’s hoping to become a writer, in part by telling Aibileen’s story.
Skeeter’s eventual book—for of course she will write and publish one—is titled The Help, like the movie where you see her now and the novel on which it’s based, by Kathryn Stockett (currently being sued for “stealing” this story). But despite this bit of meta-framing, Tate Taylor’s movie is mostly straightforward, a saga of hardship and survival, resistance and redemption. Undoubtedly meaning well, The Help is yet mired in the presumption that, as the experiences of “the help” provide plot, they also provide instruction and salvation for their white women employers. Skeeter will do good, serving as a voice for her anonymous sources. And Aibileen will do housework.
As The Help begins, Aibileen is doing that work for Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), a slight belle-ish sort unable to care for her own chubby baby, Mae Mobley. “I done raised 17 kids in my life,” recounts Aibileen, mostly white. Her own son, you find out, met a tragic end that scarred her, and so she’s immersed herself in her job, making 95 cents an hour, riding the bus each morning and night, protecting and placating her apparently mindless mistress: “Does this dress look handmade?” Elizabeth sing-songs, as Aibileen and you see that it does indeed. “Oh no,” she lies, as Elizabeth heads out the door to the afternoon party where she her girlfriends will play bridge and eat ambrosia.
Lying is a way of life in Jackson. If the maids lie as a function of their employment, their employers lie in ways at once subtler and more blatant. Certainly the white girls’ perspectives are based in the racist fiction of their own supremacy, but within their own circle, they lie to each other and themselves as well, believing (or pretending to believe) in the dominance of their social leader Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) dominance. Head of the Junior League and a perfectly uptight hostess, Hilly ordains fashion choices and metes out punishments, for her girlfriends and their maids as well. When she feels affronted one afternoon and so decides that the all the ladies must provide separate toilets for their help, Elizabeth scurries to install one—essentially a wooden box with plumbing—even as her husband (Shane McRae) wonders at the sudden need for such an inconvenience.
Skeeter’s lies are different in kind from her peers’. Fetchingly tomboyish, she comes home after four years at Ole Miss and duly finds a job at the local newspaper, writing the household advice column. On learning that her family’s maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), has left town during her absence, Skeeter turns to Aibileen for help on the column. When she notices the effects of Hilly’s abusive language and attitude, she wants to help the help, and so persuades Aibileen to tell her story, “what it’s really like in Jackson.” Skeeter’s conscience is somewhat eased when Aibileen reveals she writes down her thoughts each evening, and offers to read them to her. Thus, Skeeter tells herself, Aibileen is a co-writer, though she cannot put her name on the book or even be named in it.
Encouraged by a New York City editor (Mary Steenburgen) to finish the book before “this whole civil rights thing blows over,” Skeeter presses Aibileen to help her find other interview subjects. But for much of the film, black women who work in white households refuse, knowing that their livelihoods or even their very lives are at risk. The film underlines this context with glimpses of background TVs. Here you see an example of seeming cause-and-effect, when President Kennedy speaks on civil rights and Medgar Evers is murdered, in Jackson. This event is vividly evoked in a sequence where Aibileen and other black riders are tossed off their bus that night, as the white driver anticipates trouble. She runs home, slipping in the mud so that she arrives home looking exceptionally distressed as she’s greeted by her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) and her children, huddled at the table—per the film’s inclination to obviousness.
Again and again, the film filters Aibileen’s experience through Skeeter’s, setting the white girl as the outsider in need of education, and assuming an audience in the same position. “This is not about me,” Skeeter insists, “It doesn’t matter how I feel.” But the film is all about how Skeeter feels, how she recognizes and comes to share Aibileen’s pain, how her own family’s history parallels Aibileen’s; when Skeeter finds out her mother (Allison Janney) fired Constantine (Cicely Tyson), her maid (and the woman who raised Skeeter), she’s horrified by the betrayal (and her mother’s lies surrounding it).
Skeeter’s dismay is only exacerbated when Minny, fired by Hilly, joins Aibileen in telling stories. But the film repeatedly leavens the horrors with humor, mostly at Hilly’s expense (even her mother, played by Sissy Spacek, takes some delight in her demon-child’s comeuppance). When Minny finds new employment with Celia (Jessica Chastain), cast out of the social center by Hilly, she provides other stories by way of instruction, what whites and blacks are allowed to do in relation to one another.
Here the film looks at another sort of lying, as Celia tells her husband Mike (Mike Vogel) that she’s made the suddenly terrific fried chicken he’s eating. Because Mike’s a decent, open-minded guy, this story turns into a collaboration with Minny, bringing her into their family and ensuring that not every white person in town is so evil, blind, and racist as the increasingly cartoonish Hilly. Setting her off as the outsized villain, The Help ends up being less revealing than self-righteous.