Tate Taylor’s directorial debut, the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s New York Times bestseller, “The Help,” is a controversial and emotionally moving film about three different women in Mississippi in the 1960s who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project concerning race and class divisions that breaks societal rules and puts them all at risk.
“The Help” stars the divine Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark, a middle-aged, humble, nurturing maid who takes special pride and pleasure in caring for the children she watches-in this case, giving her charge, Mae Mobley, more love, attention and positive reinforcement than her employer, Elizabeth Leefold (Ahna O’Reilly) seems willing or able to.
For Skeeter (Emma Stone), one of Elizabeth’s best friends from college, Aibileen is the perfect candidate for her plan as an aspiring writer to expose an unspoken issue: the intimate, fraught relationships between Black domestic help and their white employers, from the Black perspective.
Her own family’s maid having recently left under mysterious circumstances, and with extra motivation from New York City editor Elain Stein (played by Mary Streenburgen), who challenges her to write about something that matters, Skeeter aggressively pursues Aibileen to help her write about the experience of being the “colored” help in a white household. Once Skeeter learns she needs perspectives from more than one maid in order for Stein to even consider the manuscript, she and Aibileen manage to convince the outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) to join their team, despite the fact that the trio’s efforts could be life-threatening if they are found out.
“The Help” acts as a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” meets “Gosford Park,” by stirring up issues of racism and class division as seen from multiple perspectives, giving an overall dramatic view of the sociopolitical climate of the time while also finding room for some comic relief. Bryce Dallas Howard plays pitch-perfect villain Hilly Holbrook, an alpha Mean Girl who enjoys controlling her social circle and striking fear into those who dare oppose her, whom other sycophantic wives follow out of fear of being seen as different.
When Hilly starts a sanitation initiative that mandates all white homeowners have a separate bathroom (usually outside of the house and uninsulated, much like an outhouse) for their Black domestics, tensions are brought to an even higher level and Skeeter gets more fuel for her fire. When Skeeter succeeds in finding more maids who are willing to share their stories and subsequently publishes the book, she runs afoul of big bad Hilly, who discovers, to her rage, that a “terrible, awful” secret about her had been intimated anonymously within its pages.
Hilly’s particular brand of evil, by turns laughable and chilling, is counterbalanced by Missus Walters (played by Sissy Spacek) whose humorous reaction to her daughter, someone she takes less than seriously, adds a breath of hilarious air to the film.
Unlike the novel, with its slow plotline reveals, the film picks up the pace by bringing some of the main characters’ hidden personal issues immediately to the forefront, helping to move the story along and giving the audience a better perspective of the personal challenges facing each character.
“The Help” not only shines a light on racism, it also highlights sexist views of the times (i.e., women really only go to college to find a husband and wanting more from your education is unnatural).
Although the film leaves viewers on a hopeful note, it’s still depressing to remember that the story is set less than 50 years ago. While a lot has changed, there’s still a way to go.