The struggle for civil rights during the 1960s was, and still is, one of the darkest times in America’s history. Blacks were treated as second-class citizens and essentially considered the property of the white man or woman who employed them. There were more wrongs done during that era than can ever be remedied which is why a film like The Help is so dangerous and offensive.
Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, the film focuses on the challenges faced by black maids who worked for white families in the late 60s. These women worked tirelessly for little pay and raised child after child just to provide minimal support to their own families. Director Tate Taylor, who adapted the novel for the screen, ignores the reality of what
was happening assumedly because it was too sad or depressing for a Hollywood movie. Instead, he presents a lighthearted comedy about friendship, filled with wacky characters and slapstick comedy.
The film’s protagonist is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent Ole Miss graduate who returns to her Jackson, Mississippi home with dreams of becoming a serious journalist. Like most Southern communities of that time, each white family has a black maid who raises the children, does the shopping and cleans the house. Skeeter, with her idealistic worldview from college, isn’t as comfortable with the situation as she once may have been, but that doesn’t stop her from letting the maids wait on her hand and foot.
In an effort to assuage her white guilt, she decides she wants to write a book which will expose the injustices done to the help in the South. Of course, it will also launch her career as a writer, but that couldn’t be her driving motivation, could it? She pesters and then recruits two maids to tell stories which are both humiliating and horrifying. Aibileen Clark (Viola
Davis) is the eternally loving Mammy character that no self-respecting white community would do without. Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) is the outspoken loudmouth who is too proud to keep her mouth shut, which gets her in trouble with her missus, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).
The Help is offensive and insulting for so many reasons it’s hard to keep track. Instead of addressing the real issues which plagued black communities in the 1960s, Taylor focuses on
the more pleasant aspects of the women’s lives, like going to church and gossiping in the kitchen (while making the white families’ food, of course). He only gives cursory acknowledgement to the violence and torture experienced by blacks of that time, never showing one single act of aggression by a white bigot who couldn’t wait for a black person to step out of line.
The characters of The Help are thinly sketched caricatures of the worst stereotypes of black people. Davis and Spencer should be ashamed of themselves for so willingly playing into the perception that black women are either god-fearing and subservient or have a serious attitude problem. Davis, who is typically a terrific actress, gives a one-note performance as Aibileen who is supposed to be the spirit of the film. Stone, in her first “serious” role, makes Skeeter more obsessed with her own career than with helping the women who deserve to be
treated like human beings.
The only redeeming quality of the film is the performance by Bryce Dallas Howard. As the Queen Bee of the Junior League and the women who can cause the most pain for anyone who crosses her, Howard is exceptional. She skillfully captures the mentality of someone who truly believes that they are doing what is right. Hilly honestly believes she is helping the maids by requiring white households to install separate bathrooms for the help. Howard is so brilliant and convincing that it will be hard to see her as anything other than an unforgivable racist for a long time.
It would be easy to say The Help was focusing on just one aspect of the civil rights battle, but that is letting it off the hook. Taylor and those involved with the production have turned a blind eye to the reality of that time for the sole purpose of selling tickets. Let’s hope that The Help is soon forgotten and never shown in a classroom. Ever.
This film is rated PG-13 and runs 137 minutes.