Released at the end of last summer while the big blockbusters were still making a lot of noise in the theater next door, The Help released to mostly positive reviews. It was mostly aimed at women who didn’t have any interest in all the comic book and action films that dominate the warmer months’ popcorn boxoffice, and quietly made over two hundred million dollars in its run… and stirred up a lot of Oscar talk in the process.
Based on the 2009 debut novel of Kathryn Stockett, the semi-autobiographical tale of a white girl raised by her African-American maid during the 1960s takes a deeper look at the social injustices present in the South, and seeks to give a voice to “the help.” Set against the Civil Rights movement days in the powderkeg city of Jackson, Mississippi, the film is a particularly interesting piece of historical fiction that focuses on the female perspective of that time period.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is a recent college graduate whose first job is working at the Jackson Journal, on her way to hopefully someday becoming a professional writer. Her mother (Allison Janney) is ill, and is concerned that Skeeter is still unmarried, and may be burning her bridges by taking on a job. When she returns home from college, Skeeter is concerned to hear that their longtime maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has left the family’s employment, and no one will talk about it. At the same time, she begins talking with her friend Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen (played wonderfully by Viola Davis), for homemaker hints for a newspaper column, and begins to realize how bad the help are treated in many households.
Aibileen’s character is a strong woman who has looked after and raised seventeen white babies in her lifetime, while still mourning the death of her own son. She quietly and respectfully does what is asked of her, but holds it all up inside. Her only release is talking to her friend Minny (Octavia Jackson), another maid who is not afraid to speak her mind and has been fired quite a few times in her life, constantly reminding herself, “No sass mouth.”
While attending a bridge game one afternoon with the Junior League women’s club, Skeeter begins to really see how bad things are with the way her friends treat the help. The leader of the group, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), is just straight-up evil, and her treatment of the maids, along with her “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” which seeks to segregate in-hoome bathrooms in order to avoid “their diseases,” pushes Skeeter over the edge.
Her conversations with Aibileen switch from housekeeping to unfair worker treatment, and with each new story, her resolve becomes stronger to help “the help” by telling their untold tales to hopefully bring about a change. Against a backdrop that is reeling from the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and an increasingly tense racial divide, the dangers of exposing these facts start to grow. I love the quote toward the end: “God says we need to love our enemies. It hard to do. But it can start by telling the truth.”
The movie is particularly interesting because it does unveil the truth (or as close to it as Hollywood gets sometimes) and makes us look again at the history of our young country. It blows me away that this story took place less than fifty years ago, and puts things into perspective looking at that time period. What’s also interesting is that the tale is told almost exclusively from the female perspective. While men are in the film, they are rarely if ever shown, and when they are, they are mostly just a stereotype or sleeping in the background.
In addition to the film, the Blu-ray version also includes a few extras that are worth a watch. There are five deleted scenes with introductions by director Tate Taylor, as well as a music video for “The Living Proof” by Mary J. Blige. Alongside the obligatory “Making of The Help” is the particularly compelling “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi.” It shows interviews with women who actually worked as maids during that time period in the South, and their thoughts on their jobs, living in that era, and the film.