Three women give voice to the working class and shake up a whole town in the process in The Help.
In 1960s Mississippi, one of the only jobs available for a Black woman included going to work for a White family, cleaning their houses and taking care of their children. Even while keeping everyone else’s homes in order, they were still treated as second-class citizens who were paid meager wages for all of their hard work.
For a burgeoning journalist named Skeeter (Emma Stone), their untold stories were her ticket to a writing career at one of the nation’s biggest publications. But getting the cooperation of the help proved to be a daunting task.
The Help opens with a weary Abileen (played by Viola Davis) resting in the tub after a long day, explaining how she works all month just to earn $200. For that, she takes care of every household chore, including grocery runs and starting her employer’s disregarded daughter’s day with positive affirmations.
The woman that Abileen works is far more concerned about keeping up with the town’s Alpha female, Hilly Holbrook (the story’s consummate, insufferable bigot), than raising her own children and maintaing her family’s finances.
Meanwhile, Hilly prides herself on unofficially ruling the town’s housewives, and her housekeepers, with an iron fist. If anyone were to dare step a toe out of line, she wastes no time exacting revenge. The first victim of her wrath is her spitfire maid Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer).
Skeeter enters the picture one afternoon as she joins Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and all of her old friends for an afternoon of Bridge after graduating from college. Director Tate Taylor did an excellent job of juxtaposing Emma Stone’s character against her contemporaries, most of whom had decided to forgoe careers of their own to start families. It’s clear that after four years with her head in a book, Skeeter no longer fits in with her friends.
While Hilly’s pet project, a bill that would force Black maids to use an outhouse during work hours, doesn’t seem like a backwards idea to the rest of their circle, Skeeter is clearly appalled at the idea. Hilly is so invested in the idea, however, that she actually fires Minny for using a bathroom in the house during a terrible storm.
Minny is sassy everywhere but home, where she suffers under the hand of an abusive husband who beats her for losing her job. Eventually she finds employment working secretly for a perfectly delightful woman named Celia Foote, the town outcast, and the two strike up a real kinship and actually become friends. And it’s no wonder: Celia is everything that Hilly isn’t.
Watching the movie, it was very apparent that even though the days of legal slavery had long since ended by the 1960s, the mentality of a slave/owner relationship was still in place. The Help acknowledges that during an exchange between Skeeter and one of the maids who dares to contribute her story to the book.
The book is of course the center of the film, and Skeeter is inspired to write it after she submits an article to a major newspaper and the editor asks for more material. Initially, Skeeter can only get Abileen to share her story, but Minny eventually comes onboard for the project. Somehow, between the three of them, they enlist the help of nearly a dozen other maids under the condition that all of their submissions are anonymous. It isn’t just for the personal protection either; writing a book like The Help was actually illegal in Mississippi at that time.
Just for a little extra protection, Minny provides a little insurance on the book by telling the tale of the "terrible awful" she’d done to her former employer Hilly. We won’t spoil it for you, but it brings a new twist to the idea of humble pie.
The Help stays very authentic and true to the times, even referencing the assassination of Medgar Evars to drive home the severity of racial tensions in the south at that time. But to keep the film from being too heavy, the actors all do a fantastic job of delivering humor in their own very distinct ways whether it’s Abileen’s dry wit, Skeeter’s sarcasm, Minny’s sassiness or Celia’s bubbly delight at the most mundane things. The director also did an excellent job of spenidng just enough time with each storyline so that one character’s arc didn’t dominate the movie.
Overall this movie was time very well spent, and you can experience it for yoursef when The Help hits theaters August 10.