Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is one of the most anticipated movies of the summer. For the millions who have read the book about African-American maids and their Anglo employers in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi, “The Help” will not disappoint, even though they’ll notice one important change in plot. Those who have not read the book will surely enjoy the movie too.
“The Help” has a lot of humor. However, set in the era of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, the movie has a serious side as well. Skeeter, a recent graduate of Ole Miss, wants to become a journalist. She gets a job writing a household hints column for a Jackson newspaper. Skeeter has submitted a manuscript to a New York publisher who thinks she has promise, but needs more experience. Skeeter seeks the domestic advice of her friend Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen, with her column. As Skeeter and Aibileen talk, the idea for a much more ambitious project takes shape. Skeeter asks to interview Aibileen and other maids regarding their experiences working for white families. They realize this could be a dangerous assignment. If they were ever found out, this would certainly mean dismissal for the participants, if not much worse. Aibileen and her friends know only too well what could happen to those who challenged the segregated system of her day. After much thought, Aibileen agrees. Later she persuades her friend Minny to participate. Eventually, after a maid who wants to send her sons to college is arrested for theft, others come forth.
What was it like knowing that these women, who had few other opportunities for employment, worked below minimum wage, with no benefits, and could be fired without reason? Skeeter wanted to know the humiliation of the maids, when they were not allowed to use bathrooms in the homes where they worked. What about raising generations of white children, who grew up to be just like their mothers and fathers? As Skeeter tells her publisher, Margaret Mitchell told Mammy’s story in “Gone with the Wind.” Skeeter wanted to tell the story from Mammy’s perspective.
As someone who grew up during this era in the South, much of “The Help” rings true. I remember Savannah, our maid, who helped to raise me and my brothers. Everyone I knew in my middle class white neighborhood had a maid. Our families all cared for them and treated them like family, to an extent. However, we knew very little about their families, and even as young children, called the women by their first names. It was the way things were in the South of the 1950s and 1960s. No one questioned the system, and its injustices, at this time.
“The Help” is primarily a story about women, black and white. I am glad that the characters are three dimensional. Few, black or white, are all good or all bad. “The Help” shows the power of social sin. Both black and white women are so immersed in the system, no other way seems possible until Skeeter’s subversive book. Of course, the racist system worked in favor of the powerful to keep them in control. At the end of the film, Aibileen says that even though she suffered from her participation in the book, telling her story made her free.
Director Tate Taylor has assembled a great cast of actresses, including the young Emma Stone as the feisty Skeeter, and Viola Davis as Aibileen, who has seen it all and is willing to take a risk for the sake of change. Octavia Spencer is also excellent as the strong-willed Minny, who, in a hilarious scene, takes her revenge against Hilly, who fired her for using the bathroom. Davis and Spencer deserve Oscar nominations for their performances. Many other actresses give life to these Mississippi women, notably Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson in smaller roles.
“The Help” works both as a comedy, but also as a story that exposes the injustices and pain beneath a system that survived in the South (and other regions of the country) for generations. It salutes the black women who worked so hard, despite the injustices, to raise their families, care for the children of the white community, and still manage to retain their dignity. Telling their stories salutes their memories and helps to liberate all of us.
Tom Condon, OP