What director Tate Taylor does with his adaptation of The Help defies expected—if extremely biased—ideas of how African Americans are treated in Hollywood mainstream cinema. His film deals with civil rights, racism and segregation with such delicate command that, for all the industry has accustomed us to, it comes unscathed in its portrayal of intolerance and hate.
The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early ‘60s. The film opens and we meet Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), an African American maid whose entire life has been dedicated to raising white children. She goes from house to house performing cleaning and homekeeping duties, but she seems to think of herself as a child-raiser before just a “maid”. Her life is mostly limited to her work, after which she goes and sits alone in her small house waiting for another day to come. In a nutshell she lives in the same place where Scarlett O’Hara threw tantrums as her mammy tried to calm her; only now the mammies aren’t slaves, in strictly legal terms.
Aibileen’s presence in the house where she works, is meant to always go unnoticed. Her employer Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) expects her to cover up for any flaws in her home, look after her baby daughter and then leave. However, her presence becomes an issue, after Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) one of her employer’s friends, points out that “Negroes” carry diseases that might kill them and commands her friend to build a special bathroom for the maid. Hilly’s own maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) confides with Aibileen, about the way in which Hilly thinks of herself as a good Christian but might very well be the biggest bigot in town.
Fortunately for Aibileen—this time in strict plot sense—Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) has just moved back to Jackson, after graduating from the University of Mississippi. Skeeter is hired by the local newspaper to take over a home keeping column, but the young woman is eager to write about something more important. Then in one of those magical movie moments she realizes that she might have the subject she’s looking for standing right in front of her (or cleaning for this matter…) she will write a book about the experience of being a black maid in Mississippi, not through her eyes, but through of the maids themselves.
Considering the fact that Mississippi had become one of the most violent states in terms of hate crimes, Skeeter’s undertaking is something extremely courageous and the movie justly point this out. Detractors might think of the film’s central twist as yet another take on the “white-rich-person saves black-poor-person” genre that Hollywood loves so much (think Driving Miss Daisy, and The Blind Side), but unlike those shrill movies that try to be both self-righteous and profound, The Help is characterized by a surprising sincerity in how it acknowledges its faults from the get-go.
The key to enjoying The Help or not, lies in whether you think it observes the title women as something other than “the enablers”. Usually these kinds of films have token black characters that only serve to enable white people’s path from shallow to all around good. In the case of this film, this attention lies on Skeeter and the truth is that the movie does use her as a channel through which all the stories are told. It’s through her that we understand the apathy shown by rich white people towards their maids, but it’s also through her that we come closer to these women. She acts like a connection between both worlds and as such it is her character that most becomes an archetype (despite Stone’s joyful performance).
In order to justify this theory, we only have to look at the masterful way in which Taylor structures his movie. The film begins with Aibileen’s narration and finishes with it, as well. It’s only in the middle of the movie that we first meet Skeeter and the other white women. The plot does follow Skeeter a lot, but how could it not? She’s the one who first becomes struck by the injustice she was brought up believing was the norm.
The Help might not be an exercise in alternate storytelling, but it does more than most mainstream studio movies ever bother to do. It certainly gives us some stereotypes (Minny’s line about fried chicken curing it all is both sweet and cringe worthy) but throughout it makes sure to deliver them via both races (Jessica Chastain plays a “white trash” nouveau riche who’s as loathed as the maids). Not that one stereotype cancels the other, but then Taylor does the unexpected and makes these two characters deliver one of the film’s most humane twists.
Other than its effective use of old fashioned studio conventions with a less constrained outlook, the film excels because of its performances: including the hilarious, yet moving, Spencer, Stone’s delightful star turn and Chastain’s superb, ‘50s starlet, performance. Then there is Viola Davis, who turns in a performance of such dignity that you can’t help but weep in admiration of her strength and compassion. The actress has a face that commands your attention and then makes you want to look away before she breaks your heart. She’s this close to turning Aibileen into a saint but we learn that her goodness is just a compromise she’s made in order to survive.
The Help is characterized for its lush color palette and this transfer makes it more than justice. The gowns, Mississippi landscapes and crowded interior design, make it feel like it would’ve been appropriate in Technicolor. Rounding up this DVD release are a couple of deleted scenes (nothing special, just a reminder of how impressive the cast’s synergy is) and a Mary J. Blige video for a song which will probably make Oprah cry while she performs it at the Oscars. Also included are a short behind the scenes featurette and an interview with some of the real life maids who inspired the book the film is based on. Stay away from this mini-documentary though, cause it single-handedly does wrong everything the movie got right!