When a recently hired columnist begins to speak out against the cultural and economic injustices endured by her city’s maids of African descent (“the help”), she establishes herself not as a white messiah but as an amplifier for the opinions and ideas these disenfranchised yet intelligent women hold. The Help smartly rises above its own civil-rights trappings, becoming a memorable and exceptionally well written character drama.
More than a standard genre entry.
As the movie’s title is written on notebook paper, a maid speaks of how her mother had the same career and how her mother was a house slave. The person currently speaking is a remarkable parent–but she is forced to look after white babies, not her own blood. It’s obvious she cares deeply for each child she watches, but from the Leefolt family, her thanks for her endless devotion are long hours and low wages.
The Jackson, Mississippi of the 1960s is shown as a heavily segregated environment, complete with de jure or de facto racial restrictions on everything from taxicabs to bathrooms. It is the location of a journal where Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone), a young and inexperienced author-to-be, finds herself writing for a domestic-maintenance column. She, meanwhile, has other plans: her most powerful stories are going to be the ones the people of Jackson end up telling, whether they know it or not.
The fact that Eugenia even has a job seems to confuse her mother Charlotte, who is bound and determined to see the girl marry and have children, even if that means telling the poor girl her eggs are dying. (Eugenia is nowhere near old enough to start worrying about her chances of conceiving.) In any case, the girl approaches her livelihood and her spare time as an opportunity to serve the disadvantaged, among whom are Aibileen Clark and another maid, Minny Jackson. Clark lost her own son, Treelore, years ago. To lighten their spirits, the maids joke about their employers while out of sight.
Phelan and Clark initially have a working relationship, answering letters for the former’s maintenance column–Eugenia is not shown as experienced with cleaning, a forte for Aibileen–but this eventually grows into a stronger bond as Aibileen, whose distrust of most Caucasians is frankly understandable, learns to appreciate her unlikely ally’s intentions and goals. This movie’s early character-establishing scenes, including ardent racist Hilly Holbrook and deeply questionable parent Elizabeth Leefolt (her daughter looks too old to be wearing a diaper and is said to sleep in her own filth, with this being among the least of her concerns) as well as various maids and other individuals, can be difficult to follow and slow to build to a point; that being stated, all of these people are clearly defined individuals who prove their worth throughout this carefully crafted story.
Later parts of the film showcase Celia Rae Foote, one of the few
white characters who treats African people as humans with value. While eccentric, Foote’s character contains a surprising amount of depth and is one of the film’s most compelling. She has an unsettling but worthwhile secondary drama with Hilly, who centralizes the city of Jackson’s contempt toward Africans. (Other ethnic minorities are rarely even mentioned, let alone depicted, but this may simply come down to the demographics of the setting and time.) This drama might seem out of place at first, but it and other subplots go along way toward refusing to pigeonhole these people based solely on their feelings about race relations, no matter what those ideas happen to be.
Hilly herself is not complex but is a frustratingly effective centralization of The Help’s racist setting. There’s not much to say about her worldview, but actress Bryce Dallas Howard–who incidentally played the same role of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3 as Emma Stone played in The Amazing Spider-Man–does an excellent job of traversing among emotional extremes, being evilly gleeful in one moment and caught up in unbridled anger in another. She sneers, she treats many others poorly (including whites), she thinks her lack of compassion literally does other people favors, and she’s trying to get an initiative passed that will require white homes to have separate bathrooms for the colored help.
The moods and subplots are quite diverse.
Two story lines begin to take root here: the first is that Aibileen overhears Hilly’s plans and has to decide whether to trust Eugenia; the second is Eugenia’s push for details of what happened to Constantine, the maid who raised her and grew close to her before abruptly quitting. The flashback that shows Phelan’s and her maid’s friendship comes close to feeling silly instead of inspirational, but even if Constantine seems almost unbelievably sweet (given the setting) and consigned to giving advice, her words about not believing insults from the unwise are valuable.
While getting housekeeping tips for her column, Eugenia wants to interview Aibileen and numerous other maids in secrecy about their work conditions. Elsewhere, one of the other characters discusses wanting an expensive extra bathroom, showing just how impractical segregation potentially becomes to enforce altogether. Many other problems arise almost all at once, ranging from natural disasters to spousal abuse, and the movie skillfully navigates each of these, showing its characters as generally multifaceted individuals without straying too far from its themes of racism. These stories of various maids’ backgrounds and work histories make one wonder why racist whites even bother allowing “the help” to watch their children if not to do much else. Hilly eagerly demonstrates how unsympathetic she can be, as her villainous grins threaten to remove what little subtlety this narrative even has.
Celia, a sometimes hyperactive sweetheart who (while not initially telling her husband) clandestinely employs Minny and genuinely appreciates her presence and assistance; sadly, thanks to her reputation, Celia often isn’t treated much more respectfully than the setting’s black people are. Foote’s personality and Eugenia’s are heavily contrasted, with the latter being one of the very few understated characters in this movie, at least until various other girls try to set Phelan up with a man named Stuart. This threatens an unimaginably cheesy romantic subplot that’s even more unwelcome than the one Kiki’s Delivery Service narrowly avoided, but thankfully The Help expects some realism from its romantic interests: several of Stuart’s actions sour Eugenia’s opinion of him fast.
More importantly, the plight of the maids and of various other black individuals has yet to improve. They don’t make minimum wage or get Social Security benefits, and they don’t always receive even what little they’re promised. One person has his carport bombed (also not shown–the movie usually shies away from depictions of violence, though one character is visibly beaten by her husband, and descriptions are given of unrelated events). As Phelan asks dozens of maids for help and is continually rebuffed, one character unveils an especially heartbreaking portion of her story, and personal and societal difficulties increase for essentially everyone in the film.
“Love is to be prepared to put yourself in harm’s way for your fellow man.”
Hilly has grown particularly confrontational, provoking Eugenia toward her own kinds of responses. Stuart’s treatment of his “date” and of her ideas is inconsistent, which makes him feel unnecessary in a movie that generally uses and develops its characters extremely well. One parent proves just how abusive she can be, just before a much worse act of violence takes place at a distance. Another person, who would likely make a loving mother, has a miscarriage–and she’s had several. The shot of the graves of these children is haunting. Several characters get arrested, one woman speaks of hers and likely others’ quality of life as essentially being slavery by a different name, and the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination is shown.
As with movies like The Fellowship of the Ring, of all things, The Help seems to have internal issues with deciding how it wants to treat its antagonists. Some of the protagonists speak of loving one’s enemies, and then the movie goes and plays an act of revenge for laughs. To be perfectly honest, it is really funny, at least until one character gets kicked out of her own house and sent against her wishes to a nursing home just for laughing. This subplot as a whole doesn’t match the increasingly grim tone of the rest of the story, which may well be intentional and done for the sake of relieving the viewer.
Eugenia’s and the maids’ plot starts to become a little too straightforward, but the movie makes up for this with not one but several two major character revelations. These story moments sometimes feel predictable but are usually just sincere enough to not feel emotionally manipulative. While this is not a film that interests itself in traditional Hollywood action, one of its funniest and most delightful scenes comes toward the end of the story, in the form of an unorthodox stealth sequence in a grocery store.
The movie does not end on a universally happy note, and the conclusion comes across as bittersweet if (barely) optimistic. In order to keep from becoming too sugary, the plot very nearly goes in the opposite direction. Whether that’s a welcome decision or not, its reasoning is believable enough, and the remainder of the story generally does an excellent job resolving its many subplots. While the film moves slowly through its two and a half hours, its adept use of most of that time and its willingness to distinguish its characters make it one of the most complex stories I’ve ever seen executed so successfully.
Conclusion: If you can love your enemy, you already have the victory.
Thanks to films like Red Tails, I had overwhelmingly negative expectations for this film and its premise, and both could hardly have surprised me any more or better. While The Help is by no means as graphic or unsettling a depiction of its themes and era as it could have been, the movie establishes itself as its own unique sort of success. It’s not a “white guilt” movie. It’s a story that heavily involves racism but makes all of its characters, even Hilly, notable for traits and behaviors that go well beyond the various ways this group of mostly women treats black people. The acting is excellent all around, with Viola Davis presenting another memorable performance to go alongside her turn in 2008’s Doubt (rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman). Emma Stone also does a wonderful job playing her character as one who knows when to be quiet and when to be anything but.
The various environments are lovely to look at, and the movie is to be commended for usually knowing how to be tactful. In a film that generally takes itself extremely seriously, violence is limited only to what the story requires, which may interest parents who are wanting to discuss this movie’s ideas with their teenage children. Profanity does seem rather common, and the multiple uses and variants of the N-word feel specifically deployed to shock as opposed to appearing as a logical part of an otherwise rather restrained setting. As far as I’m concerned, however, this movie excels in crafting stories in a way I’d all but forgotten movies were capable of doing, and for that, it is to be enjoyed and appreciated; given the viewer’s patience, The Help eventually blooms into something wonderful.
Oh, and three things:
1) Never trust a pie.
2) I didn’t like Eugenia’s nickname “Skeeter,” hence why I didn’t address her as such.
3) Celia looks absolutely amazing in that dress (don’t expect me to spoil!), and the camera flatters her.