African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi contemplate telling their stories to a young woman who wants to uncover the true nature of the relationship between these women and the white families they work for in The Help, a thoughtful adaptation of the novel by the same name.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) has worked as a housekeeper and nanny since she was a teenager. That is to say, for decades, she has raised white children. But, though she is often closer to them than their mothers when they are little, she becomes essentially their employee as they get older and have their own children. And class and race being what they are in the South of this era, these children might be loving when young but when they get older their ideas about the black women who raised them often conform with the ideas that the Jim-Crow-supporting white society in general has about its black neighbors.
For women like Aibileen and her best friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who is also a domestic, this arrangement is simply a hard fact of life. But for Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer and recent college graduate, this relationship is suddenly striking her as one that needs some examination. Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the woman who raised her, suddenly left the family home while Skeeter was away at school and she is at a loss. She misses Constantine and wants to better understand the relationship she had with her. Additionally, her friends are now young wives and mothers and have domestic servants of their own. The general atmosphere in civil rights era Mississippi combined with a strange new obsession of Skeeter’s friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) has Skeeter eager to write about these women.
Hilly, leader of the Junior League and all-around queen bee for the girls of Skeeter’s generation, has decided to take up the campaign of separate bathrooms for domestic help. She convinces Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), the skittish young mother Aibileen works for, to get a separate bathroom for Aibileen and keeps pushing Skeeter to put her initiative in the Junior League newsletter, which Skeeter produces. What do you think of the bathroom thing, Skeeter asks Aibileen. Aibileen, visibly horrified as she overhears the women discuss it, doesn’t quite know what to make of Skeeter or her questions. Later, when Skeeter asks her to tell her the story of her life, Aibileen refuses. The possibility for danger, even mortal danger, is great. But slowly (the movie’s story unfolds against the backdrop of the killing of Medgar Evers), Aibileen starts to wonder if the good she could do by speaking out is worth the risk.
And that right there is about 50 percent of the plot. There is also Aibileen’s personal story — she’s recently lost her only child and his death eats at her. There’s Minny, stuck in a bad marriage and in a precarious employment position. As the movie starts, she works for Hilly’s mother (Sissy Spacek), but Hilly has it in for her. Later, Minny goes to work for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a woman viewed as too blonde, too busty and too country and thusly ostracized by Hilly’s “polite society.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth may be part of Hilly’s in crowd but she isn’t as financially well-off as them and she’s a bit of a weakling who doesn’t seem to have the strength to say no to anything (to Hilly’s ridiculous bathroom scheme, to having children she doesn’t want).
And then there’s Skeeter, who has a difficult relationship with her mother (Allison Janney), in part because of whatever happened with Constantine but in part because Skeeter doesn’t fit in. Unlike her friends, she didn’t use college to find a husband; she graduated and now she wants a job, a career even. She can’t seem to get a boyfriend, and her frizzy hair is just one of the issues her mother has with Skeeter’s appearance.
A whole lot of story is packed into this movie, and it’s still less than was in the book. This streamlining may be part of what makes The Help the movie a more successful story-telling experience than The Help the book. We get the “rich tapestry” effect that a movie this layered needs but we don’t get lost in minutiae. The characters are complex and have dimension — even, sort of, a villain like Hilly or a cartoonier figure like Celia.
What truly lifts this movie out of soapy historical drama and makes it a more serious character study are the performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. These roles could have gone wrong in a hundred ways but these actresses keep them from ever being preachy or shrill or flat or, even worse, foils for the white characters. These women take the lead in their own stories and get to be fully realized people — even more so than in the book (which was a wise decision on the part of the movie-makers). Viola Davis, in particular, who I am 100 percent in the tank for at all times, gives an excellent performance, one that helped me overcome some of the movie’s squirmier moments (race is a hard thing to get right and this movie is more-often-than-not successful). Davis’s résumé includes lots of small roles in movies as varied as Eat Pray Love, Knight and Day and Doubt (for which she received an Oscar nomination). Even in Doubt, which starred Meryl Streep, there is a strong case to be made that Davis’ performance was the best part of the film. Some cable network (AMC? HBO?) needs to build a show around her and utilize her nuanced acting skills. I doubt much from this summer will be remembered during award season, but her role here may be the one thing that is.
The Help wasn’t a perfect book — my feelings about it were complicated — but it was an interesting read. The movie is a little more straightforward and gives its African-American leads more time in the spotlight — indeed, Viola Davis’ performance alone could have carried its own movie and is reason enough to see this one. B
Rated PG-13 for thematic material. Directed by Tate Taylor (who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett), The Help is two hours and 17 minutes long and distributed by DreamWorks Studios.