‘The Help’ Is An Insult To The Real-Life Help

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.

Grade: D-


One thought on “‘The Help’ Is An Insult To The Real-Life Help

  1. I am going to disagree with your entire review of ‘The Help.’

    First, the cast all deliver exceptional performances in a film that is much more than a “blind-eye” comedy. ‘The Help,’ beautifully intertwines the injustices and heartache with light comedy, which works to keep the film at a dynamic pace. One minute people in the audience are crying, the next minute they’re laughing hysterically. That, to me, is the cornerstone of a great movie because it evokes a various array of emotions and allows you to invest fully in each and every single character.

    Personally, I think you approached this film with a bit of superficiality in that you took the film in broad scope and were offended by what the film omitted, but that’s what I found most powerful about the film was the omission. The sign that says “Colored Entrance” and Aibileen’s story of her son are powerful messages that don’t need to be overtly displayed. The cultural reference (Martin Luther King Jr., separate bathrooms, etc.) and historical contexts are there in many, many ways, perhaps not as grandiose as you would have liked. There is a moment of violence, but how many times has that been portrayed in film? It wasn’t necessary.

    To me, ‘The Help’ conveyed more important messages, like teaching the importance self-value toward children with lines “I am smart, I am important,” and female empowerment. I truly believe it was fundamentally correct for ‘The Help’ to depict individuals that were polar opposites. For example, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the antagonist and an excellent film villain – personally, Howard did an amazing job because she had me hating Hilly from start to finish, extremely. But then there was Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who provided a balance to Hilly – in that she was equally portrayed magnificently and did a very fine job as an actress, who had her own struggles which included being cast from Hilly’s social circle, but offered the daring allure (in that pink dress) and kindness and equality to Minny (Octavia Spencer), evident through the lunch scene. ‘The Help’ really is a clear depiction, at the very least, of the differences between strong, empowered women and fickle, frail women.

    There are a plethora of other social, personal issues on display in ‘The Help,’ extending far beyond just the social climate and racism. To demonstrate each of those issues, the characters are all very well developed, each with their own, unique stories that evoke the empathetic responses of the audience. For example, Milly (Spencer) you mentioned is the loudmouth, who possesses a great deal of self-worth that often gets her in trouble with her “missus,” but you fail to mention that beyond that visage, Milly is a victim, not only of racism, but of domestic violence, that her daughter is forced to drop out of school, etc. But in the film, Milly, who is strong becomes stronger on the advice of Celia. And there’s the woman who needs money to avoid only being able to send one kid to college, the mother who doesn’t like her chubby child, the set ups for injustice, the lies – the list could go on, but what this film does is masters human compassion and hatred.

    As for “Skeeter” (Emma Stone), I will disagree with your dismissal of her (Stone’s) performance and your questioning of her motives. To me, what you’re suggesting is that Skeeter developed the idea in response to her guilt-ridden conscience and to benefit or jumpstart her career as a writer. That’s an unfair assessment honestly, because Skeeter only develops the idea for the book after she assumes the responsibilities of a housekeeping article – leading her to seek advice from Aibileen. It seems as if you would have been happier had black sympathizers or compassionate individuals been omitted from the film or been traded out for more violence and visual injustice. Skeeter’s family is established as an accepting family that believes in proper treatment – her family is compassionate, that’s evident through the facial performance of Skeeter’s mom, Charlotte (Allison Janney) in that one moment of conflict in the dining room (for those that haven’t seen ‘The Help,’ you’ll understand this when you do).

    These characters have soul and they provide a soul to ‘The Help’ that is emotionally driven and written in the eyes and on the faces of the actors. This film is much more than church or kitchen gossip, which are hardly major components in any way and is more about empowerment, compassion, hatred or injustice. And frankly, I hope this film is shown in classrooms – whether that be in screenwriting classes for its exceptional structure, character development and depth – in acting/acting analysis classes for the masterful, nuanced performances and framing – or in film appreciation classes. This is a worthy, best of the year contender that extends far beyond the surface.

    Grade: A+

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