Help Me Help You: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, left), a neophyte journalist in Mississippi, interviews housemaids Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer, center) and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, right) about what it's like to work for white people. The Help aspires to be a three-hankie melodrama, but there's no steady directorial hand summoning the tears. Dale Robinette/Dreamworks Pictures hide caption
'I Got A Job'
'I Got A Job'
'Put Momma In A Chair'
'Put Momma In A Chair'
As the lights went down on a press screening of The Help, the very nice young woman next to me offered a tissue for the tears she fully expected both of us would be mopping up throughout. I'd done a little weeping while reading Kathryn Stockett's lively — if brazenly string-pulling — 2009 novel about black maids and their white mistresses in the Deep South. Yet while my neighbor had used up her hankie supply by the end of the movie, I left dry-eyed and disappointed.
Set in Mississippi on the cusp of the civil rights movement, Stockett's best-seller — based in part on her own family experiences — is deftly constructed and briskly paced. She has an attentive ear for multiple voices and a sympathetic feel for the ambivalent ties that bound the privileged lunching ladies of the Junior League to the black women who raised their children, just as they had been raised while their own mothers made the bridge club rounds.
Adapted and directed by Hollywood hopeful Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett's, The Help trots stolidly after the book, replicating its basic structure while ironing out the verve with which its nested stories unfold. Taylor has none of Stockett's feel for the seething impulses of character, and he has a clunky way with some serious acting talent. In fairness, Emma Stone, the exuberant young star of Easy A, may not be built for earnest melodrama, but she's unaccountably tamped-down as Skeeter, the spirited young daughter of white privilege who powers this tale of racism and tentative reconciliation.
In an effort to launch a career in journalism ("the last stop before marriage!" one of her lunch chums cries merrily) and uncover the secret behind the disappearance of her own beloved nanny (Cicely Tyson), Skeeter embarks on a series of clandestine interviews with Aibileen (Viola Davis), a stoical, middle-aged maid submerging her grief over the death of her own son in her love for the little white girl she's raising in the shadow of an indifferent young mother.
Cutting between their stories, Stockett produced a portrait of a community painfully and, at times, hilariously awakening to the demise of its discriminatory system. This is a hard thing to pull off without winking at an audience familiar with how this story continued. Where Stockett told her story from the inside, Taylor suspends it in historical quotes with heavy-breathing allusions to the death of President Kennedy, the shooting of Medgar Evers and, inevitably, the wicked fashion sense of Jackie O.
Fearing retribution from their employers, Minny and Aibileen are at first reluctant to share their stories, but they eventually come around to allow Skeeter a glimpse into their world. Dale Robinette/Dreamworks Pictures hide caption
Fearing retribution from their employers, Minny and Aibileen are at first reluctant to share their stories, but they eventually come around to allow Skeeter a glimpse into their world.Dale Robinette/Dreamworks Pictures
Big hair, fine period frocks and interior design lend The Help a pleasingly retro look. Yet for someone who grew up in Mississippi, the director has little sense of place, unless you count one decidedly low-rent tornado and a few inside shots of a black church. Unlike Stockett, who might have been better off writing her own screenplay, Taylor has a tin ear for the vernacular speech of his own region. Much of the dialogue seems lifted from Margaret Mitchell, with the result that virtually no one escapes caricature, from Bryce Dallas Howard, anxiously overdoing a vicious housewife who has made it her life's mission to bar servants from their employers' bathrooms, to Sissy Spacek, marooned in an excruciating dotty-old-lady role as her mother, to Jessica Chastain as a good-hearted white-trash interloper trying to break into a circle as conscious of class as it is bigoted about color.
Worst of all, the pivotal figure of Minny (Octavia Spencer), a motor-mouthed maid with a gift for ruffling white feathers, has been broadened into something approaching a black mammy, then drafted, in the movie's last act, into an episode of The Jeffersons, complete with revenge in the form of chocolate pie containing suspect ingredients.
In his lumbering way, Taylor makes Stockett's story his own by expanding the book's mild lavatorial metaphors for the ill-considered farce that pretty much takes over the movie's last act. All of which shoves into the background some beautifully tempered acting by one of our great character actresses. Holding the line for intelligent restraint, Davis' Aibileen subtly navigates the blend of loyalty and rising anger that binds her to her employers, then leads her to break free. Under Davis' skillful hand, Aibileen emerges as the reluctant heroine of The Help, the dignified face of nonviolent resistance, and the one who argues wordlessly for the union between two people on opposite sides of the racial divide that ends this rather wishful tale.
- Director: Tate Taylor
- Genre: Drama
- Running Time: 137 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material
With: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain
Racism manifests in the lives of the black maids in a number of ways: they are denied opportunities for educational or professional advancement, they perform repetitive work for white families, they must curtail their speech to prevent violence, and they must use separate facilities. Perhaps most damaging of all, black people are constantly exposed to social messages telling them that they are dirty, lazy, and in all respects less than white people.
Even the way the book is written hearkens back to this central theme. When writing from the perspective of the black maids Aibileen and Minny, Stockett uses an antiquated form of speech. While this is meant to lend authenticity to their voices, it also makes them sound uneducated and makes it somewhat difficult to relate to them.
The Helpalso suggests that it is possible to cross this racial divide. In addition to anecdotes about rude or abusive employers, we hear stories of maids who have very close relationships with the white families for whom they work. Through her efforts to be a mouthpiece for the black maids of Jackson, Skeeter develops a close friendship with Aibileen and Minny. It's possible, through effort and understanding, to begin to heal the wounds of racism.
Mothers and daughters have difficult but deeply loving relationships. The Help examines several different types of mother-daughter relationships.
Elizabeth Leefolt has a strained relationship with her mother, who is aloof and demanding; she continues this unhealthy dynamic by being neglectful and critical of her own daughter, Mae Mobley. There's also an indication that mother-daughter relationships are not necessarily dependent on blood ties. For example, Aibileen acts as a mother to Mae Mobley, not only taking care of her day-to-day needs but also teaching her to be kind to others and to always have respect for herself.
Skeeter has a difficult but loving relationship with her mother, who is constantly pressuring her daughter to dress better and catch a man. Skeeter later discovers that this critical edge is tempered by love; her mother has cancer, and she wants to make sure her daughter has a good life after she is gone. Though Skeeter's mother often bosses her daughter, she also stands up for her at critical moments, such as during her conflicts with Hilly and Stuart.
The Help takes a close look at many types of love, some of them unlikely and fraught with difficulties. The close bond between black caretakers and white children (Aibileen and Mae Mobley, as well as Skeeter and Constantine) show that nurturing love is not limited to blood relationships. As we see later in the book, this bond is often unfairly complicated by the strictures of a racist society.
Because of her new consciousness regarding race, Skeeter causes a rupture in her friendships with Hilly and Elizabeth Leefolt. Through a series of events (the discovery of the Jim Crow materials, the toilet prank, Hilly's comment about Stuart), these lifelong friendships are torn apart. But we also see how new friendships can emerge out of the ashes of old ones: it is Aibileen and Minny with whom Skeeter celebrates her new job in New York City.
The novel also focuses on different types of romantic love. Despite his affection for Skeeter, Stuart cannot get over the betrayal of his fiancée, Patricia van Devender, and his attempts to build a new relationship with Skeeter continuously fail. On the other hand, Celia and Johnny have a deeply loving relationship, triumphing over class differences, infertility, and social disapproval.
What does it mean to be a writer? The journey to publish the book is not an easy one. After an initial stroke of luck in catching Elaine Stein's attention, Skeeter struggles to develop her ideas, conduct interviews, write the book, and find a publisher. Each step is fraught with difficulties; for example, she must complete the book in only a few weeks in order to send it in for the annual editor's meeting. Skeeter spends many long nights typing until her hands are covered with ink and paper cuts, but she ultimately prevails.
Skeeter is not the only prospective writer in the book. Despite her academic excellence, Aibileen was forced to drop out of school to support her family. However, she writes down her prayers every day, continuing to build her skills in writing. Assisting Skeeter with the book about the maids gives her the chance to showcase her writing skills, and she eventually becomes the first black author of the Miss Myrna column. At the end of the novel, she thinks about developing her writing career even more.
The varying difficulties faced by women constitute another major theme in the book. In the workplace, Minny struggles with the possibility of being fired due to her outspoken personality; at home, she is violently abused by her husband. Aibileen must cope with the sorrow of her son's untimely death at the same time that she tries to support the neglected Mae Mobley. Skeeter is struggling with a world that does not value her professional ambitions and tries to force her into the narrow roles of wife and mother. Celia Foote deals with a series of miscarriages and her social isolation, which is worsened by her desire to be a capable wife to her beloved husband. Each of these women struggle to overcome these difficulties, but they also forge close bonds with other women over shared problems.
Even when everything in the world is trying to tell you what to do and what to believe, you need to make your own path. The central protagonists recognize that the current state of race relations is wrong, and work to correct it. Aibileen strives to teach racial equality and acceptance to Mae Mobley. Minny persists in working on the book about the maids despite the danger it puts her in with her own husband and Hilly. Skeeter continues working towards racial justice despite the rift it causes between her and her two best friends.
The Help is a window onto the mid-century south, giving the reader vivid impressions of the beautiful landscapes and warm culture. This includes positive qualities such as friendliness and generosity; we see these close social ties in the ways that family members treat one another. Yet it also includes racism, segregation, and misogyny, which are evident in the violent enforcement of the separation between races, and the lack of professional options for white women.