Film Review: The Help

Lushly produced, sunny drama about the dark reality of entrenched segregation and racial prejudice in early-’60s Jackson, Mississippi pits spoiled upper-middle-class mothers and housewives against the black female help they exploit and dehumanize.

Based on Kathryn Stockett’s debuting best-seller and adapted and directed by Tate Taylor, The Help, largely faithful to its source material, delivers a latter-day “civil war” of bigoted young Ole Miss society gals versus the black help at their mercy during the dying days of segregation before the Civil Rights reforms.

With its Southern belle and black maid protagonists face-to-face across the class and racial divide, the film—both funny and dead-serious as it provokes laughs, gasps, tears—skews female. But as a classy, feel-good (sweet revenge can do that), eye-opening and sometimes deliciously satiric entertainment, The Help should cross gender lines. Wonderful performances and a period-perfect look (thanks also to location shooting in the Jackson area) will help spread the word.

The story begins in 1963 Jackson, where veteran maid Aibileen (Oscar nominee Viola Davis) cares for the maternally challenged but once again pregnant Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), one in a gaggle of bigoted, busybody Junior Leaguers who mistreat and dehumanize the black help that keep their comfortable homes clean, their kids affectionately attended to, and meals on the table and cleared.

Gung-ho tyrant Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) leads this wealthy society girl group. They are oblivious to the imminent historic Civil Rights march as matters of an upcoming dinner benefit, a possible meeting with the governor and a newsletter deadline are what really count. Also commanding their attention is Celia (Jessica Chastain), a chirpy, glam-girl newcomer to town who has landed plantation owner Johnny (Mike Vogel) as her husband. Celia craves acceptance, but the Leaguers deem her too low-class and tacky to be in their league.

Happily, there’s a refreshing outlier among these otherwise insufferable recent Ole Miss grads. She’s Skeeter (Emma Stone), who, ambitious to be a writer and not yet thinking about marriage or even dating, has just landed a first job with the local paper as a cleaning-tips columnist. Her snobby girlfriends look askance at such twisted priorities but are not nearly as perturbed as Skeeter’s mom Charlotte (Allison Janney), a former Daughter of the American Revolution climber who constantly pushes her daughter to catch a husband.

As a member of their circle and social class, Skeeter, seeing up-close the bad behavior towards the help, is deeply affected and inspired to expose the abuses. The budding writer pitches New York book editor Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who expresses interest, especially as the book will be from the maids’ point of view.

Lightening her columnist chores and putting her Junior League newsletter deadline on a back burner, Skeeter enlists Aibileen as her first source in this top-secret endeavor, after assuring Elizabeth that she is interviewing Aibileen in order to secure cleaning hints for her column.

Skeeter’s secret book project has fits and starts. Most challenging is Stein’s call for more maids to participate. But a rush to spill and tell begins after Aibileen brings best friend and expert cook Minny (Octavia Spencer) on board. She had been working for Hilly until a “misstep”—daring to use a family bathroom—got her fired.

Yule Mae (Aunjanue Ellis), working for Hilly as Minny’s replacement, is refused a small loan she needs to help her twins stay in school. Other matrons act cruelly when believing that jewelry or silver has been lifted from their homes.

In a brush with romance, Skeeter dates handsome oil industry comer Stuart (Chris Lowell), but it’s consummation of the book that is uppermost. Stein knows what she wants and this time she asks Skeeter for the real story about her beloved nanny Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised her but mysteriously disappeared from the family.

And what’s a tale of the upper-class South without the resident wacko grande dame? This comes by way of Hilly’s mentally deteriorating ole mom, Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek), a talkoholic incapable of holding any thought or secret.

Performances here excel—Davis, Tyson and Spencer could all be Oscar nominees. Beyond the humor, archival material helps underscore the film’s serious side—segregation’s shame, suffering, hatred and violence. Taylor’s sharp, fearless blend of the painful, poignant and nostalgic evokes a sleepy South of stark contrasts and vile prejudice about to awaken to a very different era. Yes, sometimes the good gals win.