There can be a fine line between tastefully respectable and offensive when it comes to stories involving racial issues. Tate Taylor’s film The Help is adapted from the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett involving a young woman’s (Eugenia “Skeeter” Phalen, played by Emma Stone) return to her small town home in 1960s Mississippi after graduating from college. Upon coming home, she finds out that her family’s maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who had been employed there since she was young, was no longer working for them. She also notices the division and mistreatment of the African-American maids at the hands of their upper-middle and upper-class employers with whom they clean for and take care of their children.
Skeeter asks for the assistance of one of her friend’s maids on a cleaning column she has been hired to write for a local newsprint. During this time, Skeeter’s childhood friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) has drafted a bill that states all help of white families to be required to use separate bathrooms in the houses in which they work. Skeeter’s growing irritation of this begins to show as she snaps back at these girls while secretly talking with Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Milly (Octavia Spencer), two of the hired help of her childhood friends. During these talks, she convinces them to share their stories of working for white families, to tell both the good and bad, that she will put into a book, despite laws in place at the time preventing such a level of association between white and black people.
The film takes the events and focuses not just primarily on the African-American maids, nor does it focus on just the Caucasian families. The goal isn’t to show the maids as victims as much as it is to show their efforts to support their families and create a livelihood in the ways of the times in the 1960s. Milly and Aibileen are often seen laughing and are both very upbeat characters but there’s the constant reminder that immediately underneath lies the constant battle of race.
Despite my limited knowledge of that era of the American south, it’s obvious that Taylor chose to omit more of the brutal details that were likely endured by both Milly and Aibileen though I also wonder whether the novel does the same. What is clear, however, is that the maids are required to be extremely strong women and despite their situations, they remain close to their community, church, families and each other.
Emma Stone plays a strong role in The Help but she is overshadowed by supporting actresses Sissy Spacek (Mrs. Walters, Hilly’s mother) and Allison Janney (Skeeter’s mother Charlotte). Mrs. Walters is a humourous woman who is indifferent to the family’s maid Milly but doesn’t take her daughter seriously and doesn’t miss an opportunity to poke fun at her. Charlotte Phalen is a woman who wants her daughter to marry and live the normal life of a family girl, even at one point asking in one of the film’s funniest scenes whether her daughter prefers “other girls”. Janney’s portrayal and accent of a southern woman makes her one of her film’s best. However, it’s Viola David and Octavia Spencer that steal the show and push this film easily into the forefront as one of the year’s best. There are several scenes in which they provide some great comedy that might feel out of place in a film such as this but oddly fits perfectly in with the personalities of these characters.
If there’s one thing The Help will be known for is for the incredible acting. The film itself touches on two emotional extremes with the ability to draw both tears and laughter, sometimes just seconds apart. This is the type of film that helps you to appreciate the characters on the big screen as being real people with real problems and real emotions. You want to hug them, you want to high-five them, you want to laugh with them. There’s a certain level of power that a movie like this can hand over and make you want to give it back.