The Help Serves a Story of Hope
- Susan Ellingburg Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2011 10 Aug
DVD Release Date: December 6, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: August 10, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and language)
Genre: Drama, Adaptation
Run Time: 2 hr. 17 min.
Director: Tate Taylor
Actors: Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone
In Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, women knew their place. White girls grew up to find husbands, join the Junior League, and have babies. Black girls grew up to keep house for the white girls and raise their employers’ babies. This was the way it was.
Until . . . Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone, Crazy Stupid Love), comes home from Ole Miss with a degree but without a man. Skeeter has a notion to become a writer. “Write about something that affects you,” a New York City publisher tells her. So Skeeter gets the idea to write a book about life in Jackson—from the perspective of the help. In the words of one character, “It’s quite scandalous.”
This was not something to be entered into lightly; espousing equal society among the races was actually illegal in Mississippi at the time. Not to mention that any of the maids who dared share their stories would likely lose their jobs, if not worse. Why, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, Hereafter), queen bee of Jackson’s Junior League, fired her maid just for daring to use the indoor bathroom rather than brave a raging tornado to use the designated outhouse. Ever the crusader, Hilly mounts a campaign to build separate bathrooms for “coloreds” in all homes so her pristine behind won’t have to touch the same toilet used by the help. Not to worry, Miss Hilly will get her comeuppance for that (and other ugly acts) in more ways than one, all of them quite satisfying.
It’s not just the black women who suffer; Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life) is also an untouchable in Jackson society, a “poor white trash” girl who married Hilly’s former boyfriend. Celia’s longing for acceptance leads her to take drastic measures, which lead to some of the most poignant moments in the movie. Even Skeeter risks losing her society friends, not to mention a potential suitor, by exposing the dark side of Dixie.
Regardless of the danger, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, Doubt), housekeeper to Skeeter’s best friend, decides to talk. She’s raised nigh on to twenty white babies for Jackson families and she has stories to tell. Then Aibileen’s best friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer, Dinner for Schmucks), a feisty woman famous for her cooking, decides to tell her stories, too. Then others join in . . . and in sharing their stories with Skeeter and each other, they find themselves and the courage to be who they are.
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s No. 1 New York Times best-selling phenomenon (screenplay by Tate Taylor who also directed), The Help is by turns hilarious and horrifying, sweet and sad, but ultimately it’s a story of hope. When the maids’ stories are published (anonymously, of course) everyone in Jackson reads the book—and it might just plant a seed of change.
Viola Davis shines as Aibileen, the brave, gentle woman who lovingly teaches the neglected little girl in her care, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” Eventually, Aibileen comes to realize all those things are true about herself as well. Octavia Spencer has fabulous comic timing as the outspoken Minny, but also brings quiet depth to her role as a woman whose attitude hides a lot of hidden hurt.
The flagrant, callous racism shown makes The Help sometimes painful to watch, but it's the sort of story that needs to be seen. When Skeeter was a gawky teen, her family’s beloved maid told her, “Ugly is something that grows up inside you.” Maybe if we’re reminded what life was like not so very long ago, not so very far away, it will help keep that particular brand of ugly from growing any more.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking, occasional drunkenness; almost everyone smokes constantly.
- Language/Profanity: He--, dam-, sometimes preceded by “God”; “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” used as curses; sh-- and sh--house; a-- (sometimes with “hole”); and the n-word.
- Sex/Nudity: Clothing changes, but ‘60s undergarments cover more than modern street attire. Skeeter’s mother delicately asks if her daughter’s lack of gentleman callers is due to unnatural attraction to women. Mild kissing and a playful grab between husband and wife.
- Violence: Woman violently arrested, spousal abuse heard but not witnessed, some shoving. Aftermath of a miscarriage; some blood shown on the floor. Implied violence to live chicken next seen in a frying pan. Most of the violence is emotional rather than physical.
- Spiritual Themes: Racism is a major theme of the story, but so are loving one’s enemies, courage, resisting peer pressure, and the strength that comes when women become sisters, no matter what color their mothers may have been.