The Help is a film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling first novel about telling stories and the impact such tellings can have. The story is good; the telling of it, not so much.
After her graduation from the University of Mississippi in the fateful year of 1963, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) moves back into the family mansion and finds a job writing a homemakers advice column for the local newspaper, a typical assignment for a college-educated white woman at that time. Skeeter sees the job as a first step toward her dream of becoming “a journalist or a novelist, or both,” as she describes it. She decides to draw on the “housemaking” experiences of a friend’s black maid, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis). But she soon realizes that she would rather write about how Aibileen and other maids see and feel about their lives and work in Mississippi in the 60s.
Interracial contact, however, is dangerous for African-Americans. It is legally punishable by imprisonment, though more likely to spark vigilante violence or even murder by the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan. Aibileen enlists her best friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), to join her in talking to Skeeter, who takes notes. Eventually, as abuses against the maids multiply in the town, more than a dozen domestics meet with Skeeter to tell their stories.
The upper-class society to which Skeeter has returned is ruled by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), an active segregationist. Hilly’s major project is the promotion of what she calls her Home Health Sanitation Initiative, which aims at legally requiring black workers to use separate bathrooms in the homes of their employers. One white woman, the vivacious Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain from “The Tree of Life”), a newcomer to the town who has married a wealthy plantation owner, is ostracized by Hilly and her ladies but adds comic relief and poignancy to the story.
The two-and-a-half-hour film chronicles the oppression of the maids, the alienation of Skeeter from the attitudes of her social circle and, finally, the publication of Skeeter’s book, The Help, and its consequences.
While racial segregation and the Jim Crow laws are the film’s focus, it also portrays the segregation of genders in genteel Southern society. Men appear only on the outskirts of the narrative and have no significant influence on its action. Skeeter’s father and her brother, the newspaper editor, the other husbands, the preacher in the black church, the waiter at the diner, a couple of brutal policeman, a racist bus driver and one of Minny’s children are the only men in the film. A few of the maids’ sons are mentioned but never appear on screen. Male presence in the film amounts to 12 minutes, tops.
And that is the point. The novel and the film succeed in creating a totally female universe. All action is initiated and endured by women. The maids, who do the housework, cooking and cleaning, also care for the children. Skeeter acknowledges that a black maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), raised her. One little girl even tells Aibileen, “You are my real mother.” The white mothers’ lack of parental involvement almost defies belief. They live in a cosseted world of bridge parties, charity benefits and gossip, depending on Hilly for guidance, especially on race relations.
Viewers see that women can be as prejudiced and unjust as their male counterparts. The portrayals of these society women show the delicate, helpless, “ultrafeminine” white women described by Eldridge Cleaver in his 1968 work, Soul on Ice. The film shows these women alongside smart, independent and courageous young women like Skeeter (who comes to the rescue) and hard-working, gifted and dignified women like the maids.
Perhaps the most touching injustice occurs when Skeeter’s mother is pressured by her luncheon guest, the national chairwoman of the Daughters of America, to fire Constantine. Such tyranny among women can be seen in hindsight in the larger context of their imprisonment in the “feminine mystique,” which would not be given that name until a few years later, by Betty Friedan.
Several episodes point out the pervasive violence that hovered over the lives of black people at the time. Minny recounts how her cousin’s car was set on fire because she dared to walk up to a voting registration booth. Another maid, desperate to find $75 to send her sons to college, steals a ring, only to be arrested and publicly beaten with a policeman’s nightstick. As a contemporary backdrop, the brutal murder of Medgar Evers emphasizes the possible consequences to Skeeter and the others if their illegal conversations are discovered.
Yet the story could have been stronger had several significant details been explained. Where, for example, did our heroine acquire her liberal views? A university education might have raised her consciousness, but “Ole Miss” was hardly a hotbed of civil rights or feminism in the early 1960s. Why is only one of the many black people in the film—Minny’s husband, Leroy—presented as less than noble?
Much attention is paid to bathroom matters. The changing of children’s diapers becomes symbolic of the maids’ work. Use of racially separated bathrooms is the most consistently vivid issue of racial injustice in the film. Skeeter rebels against Hilly Holbrook’s Home Health Sanitation Initiative by inviting people to plant toilets on Hilly’s front lawn. The bathroom motif becomes a central plot element in an episode involving human excrement. But while the crude action is arguably funny, the multiple references to the event become tiresome and unworthy of the film.
Many episodes tug at the heartstrings. The last half hour, though, shifts into emotional overdrive. The firing of Constantine and the lingering portrayal of her heartbroken reaction will remind viewers of Tyson’s iconic television role as Miss Jane Pittman. In this film, though, Tyson’s tearful scene is followed by a triumph: the publishing of The Help and the conscience-stricken reactions of many of the book’s readers. In a tender reconciliation scene, Skeeter’s mother tells her daughter, “I have never been more proud of you.” In another reversal Celia and her husband, Johnny, invite Minny into their dining room to feast on all the food Minny has taught Celia to cook. And at the black church, the preacher presents Minny and Aibileen with a copy of the book, which the congregation has signed.
When Minny and Aibileen visit Skeeter to show her the signed book, they, as wisdom figures, urge her to take a publishing job she has been offered in New York. “Go find yourself” is their solemn mandate. The specter of “spoiler alert” prevents me from recounting the film’s final sequence. It involves abundant tears shed by Aibileen, her white employer and the white family’s little girl. Still, one wonders how much will change for these characters.
Viola Davis’s portrayal of Aibileen—her overflowing affection for the children in her care, her burden of bitterness and pain, her consistently noble reactions to threats and insults and her courageous decision to tell her story—is as affecting as that of her Oscar-nominated five-minute appearance in the film “Doubt” three years ago and of her Tony-winning performance in August Wilson’s “Fences” on Broadway last season. Davis is one of our generation’s most admirable actresses, whose every gesture and remark registers sincerity and integrity. The film’s cast includes some of Hollywood’s brightest newcomers and most distinguished veterans.
The film has a great cast and inspiring story, but how many tugs can one’s heartstrings take? Time, and the box-office receipts, will tell.