Before I saw the trailer for The Help, all I knew about it was that it was a book by Kathryn Stockett that a lot of ladies came into the library to ask for, and that’s how I prefer it. I don’t like to read the book before the movie, because then I’m twigging on every little thing that’s different and going “they left that part out.” So when I went to see The Help this week, I went in totally blank. No prior impressions. All I knew was what they had told me in the trailer, which was the basic storyline.
A feisty white Southern girl who wants to be a writer stirs up Jackson, Mississippi by writing a book from the perspective of the town’s African American maids.
There are lots of films out there about civil rights, and plenty of them have a hopeful message instead of a depressing one. But the thing that really seemed to set this one apart was that there’s a solid vein of comedy running throughout. I wasn’t really sure whether mixing a serious subject like racism with comedy would go over well, but now that I’ve seen the movie I can say that it really works for me.
The movie begins as Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi with her college degree, ready and rearing to make her publishing debut. She lands a starting position as the local paper’s cleaning columnist thanks to a kindly rejection letter from a New York publisher. The only problem is that Skeeter doesn’t know anything about cleaning, so she enlists the aid of Abileen (Viola Davis), a maid who works for her bitchy childhood friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).
You see, Abileen, I have never cleaned anything in my life, on account of being white and rich.
Skeeter gets involved with the local Junior League (a kind of snobbish white woman’s bridge playing and charity club) where she discovers, to her disgust, that Hilly is championing a bill that will force everyone who has colored help to create a separate bathroom outside for them, because this is Mississippi in the 1950s, which is about as friendly to civil rights as piranhas are to cow carcasses.
Separate but equal… except for the part where we treat them like furniture.
Hilly’s attitude is, of course, ridiculous, because they seem to have no trouble handing over their kids to be raised by their supposedly diseased colored maids. This is probably on account of they take the old British upper class view of kids, in which they’re more like lawn ornaments that should be seen and not heard than actual people.
But at least the British didn’t name their kids weird things like Mae Mobely
Through Abileen’s interactions with Mae Mobely (Elenor and Emma Henry) we can see how much the maids really loved the kids, and how much the kids loved the maids in return – to the point where they actually see the maid as their real mother, not the aloof lady with the big hair who occasionally parades them in front of her friends. The real irony, of course, is that Hilly and the others had been raised by maids themselves and still came out with a bigoted attitude. Except, of course, for Skeeter, whose former maid/mom Constantine (Cicely Tyson) is curiously absent, which adds a bit of a mystery angle to the story.
SKEETER: What happened to Constantine, Mamma?
MOM: Um, would you believe she moved to Majorca?
Skeeter needs a controversial angle to get the attention of the publisher in New York she wants to work for, so she has the idea that she’ll write a book from the maids’ perspectives, highlighting all the injustice and hopefully encouraging people to make changes. There are several problems with this, however. The first is that it is illegal to promote civil rights in Mississippi. And the second is that all the maids are terrified of losing their jobs and/or lives for telling tales about their employers.
Passive aggressive covert toilet use is as far as they dare to go.
Various horrible things (but not too horrible, there’s no rape or anything) that their employers and other Jackson residents do and/or say convince the maids to open up and a friendship is born between Skeeter, Abileen, and Aibeleen’s best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer). The resulting stories Skeeter collects are all over the map. Some are depressing. Some are hopeful, and some are hilarious. There’s Minny’s growing friendship with her tacky new employer Celia (Jessica Chastain), who has been snubbed by the Junior League elite.
CELIA: We’re going to have so much fun together!
MINNY: Oh Lord….
The best one, though, is the one about the pie, which I won’t spoil for you. Everything in the movie is simultaneously sad and funny. Even the subplots. There’s one involving Hilly’s mother (Sissy Spacek), who has Alzheimer’s but says and does funny things, and another involving Skeeter’s mom (Allison Janney) who has cancer or something but is more focused on landing her daughter a husband.
“Eugenia, your eggs are dyin.’ Would it kill you to go on a date?”
There are some aspects of the film that I felt could have been better. Skeeter dating a drunk douche (Chris Lowell) instead of hot Henry (Nelsan Ellis), a black waiter she knows from way back, annoyed me. The movie also can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether it wants to be about Skeeter’s journey or Aibileen’s, and I found the ending kind of a copout, with Skeeter making a move I saw as selfish and some of the maids’ threads left hanging. But overall, I enjoyed the movie. It’s a hopeful, often hilarious drama, which was a great break from the relentless action of the summer blockbusters.