I went to see The Help last night. The movie is based on the incredibly popular book of the same name and stars every celebrity or familiar face I’ve ever seen. I’d heard quite a bit about the film’s potentially racist problems—that a white girl "saves" black maids from their plight—but aside from flashes of paternalism, the movie didn’t raise my hackles at all. In fact, Emma Stone surprised me with her acting chops (I hadn’t seen her in anything since Superbad!) and Viola Davis not so surprisingly stole the movie.
The film centers on Skeeter Phelan (Stone), a recently graduate of Ole Miss who wants to be a professional journalist and/or novelist. She moves back home to Jackson, Mississippi to care for her ailing mother (Allison Janney). In Jackson, Skeeter reunites with her childhood friends who have married and have children. This pack of women, dubbed “The Bridge Club,” is headed by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her right-hand woman, Elizabeth Lefoot (Ahna O’Reilly).
Elizabeth Lefoot is a terrible mother and barely holds her little daughter because the girl isn’t very pretty. Instead, the family’s maid, Aibileen Clark (Davis), raises the little girl, just as she has many white children before. Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia L. Spencer), works for Hilly. Minny used to work for Hilly’s mother, Mrs. Walters, a hilarious and underused Sissy Spacek, who is in the early stages of dementia.
In the early scenes of the movie, Hilly has invited Skeeter and her friends over for a bridge game. Hilly, annoyingly portrayed as an unyielding bitch, has decided that she will no longer abide her maids using the same toilets as she and her family. She has written a proposal saying that black people carry different diseases from whites. (After getting fired for using Hilly's toilet, watch for Minny's hilarious payback maneuver).
At the same meet-up, Skeeter tells her friends that she has been hired as a domestic column writer, but she doesn’t know how to perform basic household tasks. She asks Elizabeth if she ask Aibileen for cleaning and cooking tips and Elizabeth agrees. The two form a partnership that cannot really be called a friendship, but the new bond between the two lasts into Skeeter’s next project.
Skeeter has garnered attention from New York editor Elaine Stein with her undergraduate resume. She pitches a book to Stein that will chronicle the lives of “the help,” or the women who raise white children who grow up to treat these domestic workers as badly as their parents did. Aibileen, inspired by her son who was an aspiring writer but was killed at a construction job, agrees to help Skeeter with her book. As tensions grow in Jackson, Aibileen gets Minny and twelve other maids to contribute their stories to the book.
The most touching part of the movie is Skeeter’s relationship with her parent’s maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the woman who raised her. Skeeter’s mother didn’t think her daughter was pretty growing up, so Constantine imbued Skeeter with self-esteem. Skeeter’s mother’s final mistreatment of Constantine is what helps Skeeter to finish her book.
Overall, the movie is very well acted with excellent performances from the three leading ladies. The Help balances a bit of camp, revenge poignancy and real issues better than most movies of its type. It’s a feel-good movie with more substance than you'd expect.