The Help Movie Essay

Help Me Help You: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, left), a neophyte journalist in Mississippi, interviews housemaids Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer, center) and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, right) about what it's like to work for white people. The Help aspires to be a three-hankie melodrama, but there's no steady directorial hand summoning the tears. Dale Robinette/Dreamworks Pictures hide caption

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Dale Robinette/Dreamworks Pictures

'I Got A Job'

'I Got A Job'

'Put Momma In A Chair'

'Put Momma In A Chair'

'Minny Agrees'

'Minny Agrees'

As the lights went down on a press screening of The Help, the very nice young woman next to me offered a tissue for the tears she fully expected both of us would be mopping up throughout. I'd done a little weeping while reading Kathryn Stockett's lively — if brazenly string-pulling — 2009 novel about black maids and their white mistresses in the Deep South. Yet while my neighbor had used up her hankie supply by the end of the movie, I left dry-eyed and disappointed.

Set in Mississippi on the cusp of the civil rights movement, Stockett's best-seller — based in part on her own family experiences — is deftly constructed and briskly paced. She has an attentive ear for multiple voices and a sympathetic feel for the ambivalent ties that bound the privileged lunching ladies of the Junior League to the black women who raised their children, just as they had been raised while their own mothers made the bridge club rounds.

Adapted and directed by Hollywood hopeful Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett's, The Help trots stolidly after the book, replicating its basic structure while ironing out the verve with which its nested stories unfold. Taylor has none of Stockett's feel for the seething impulses of character, and he has a clunky way with some serious acting talent. In fairness, Emma Stone, the exuberant young star of Easy A, may not be built for earnest melodrama, but she's unaccountably tamped-down as Skeeter, the spirited young daughter of white privilege who powers this tale of racism and tentative reconciliation.

In an effort to launch a career in journalism ("the last stop before marriage!" one of her lunch chums cries merrily) and uncover the secret behind the disappearance of her own beloved nanny (Cicely Tyson), Skeeter embarks on a series of clandestine interviews with Aibileen (Viola Davis), a stoical, middle-aged maid submerging her grief over the death of her own son in her love for the little white girl she's raising in the shadow of an indifferent young mother.

Cutting between their stories, Stockett produced a portrait of a community painfully and, at times, hilariously awakening to the demise of its discriminatory system. This is a hard thing to pull off without winking at an audience familiar with how this story continued. Where Stockett told her story from the inside, Taylor suspends it in historical quotes with heavy-breathing allusions to the death of President Kennedy, the shooting of Medgar Evers and, inevitably, the wicked fashion sense of Jackie O.

Fearing retribution from their employers, Minny and Aibileen are at first reluctant to share their stories, but they eventually come around to allow Skeeter a glimpse into their world. Dale Robinette/Dreamworks Pictures hide caption

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Dale Robinette/Dreamworks Pictures

Fearing retribution from their employers, Minny and Aibileen are at first reluctant to share their stories, but they eventually come around to allow Skeeter a glimpse into their world.

Dale Robinette/Dreamworks Pictures

Big hair, fine period frocks and interior design lend The Help a pleasingly retro look. Yet for someone who grew up in Mississippi, the director has little sense of place, unless you count one decidedly low-rent tornado and a few inside shots of a black church. Unlike Stockett, who might have been better off writing her own screenplay, Taylor has a tin ear for the vernacular speech of his own region. Much of the dialogue seems lifted from Margaret Mitchell, with the result that virtually no one escapes caricature, from Bryce Dallas Howard, anxiously overdoing a vicious housewife who has made it her life's mission to bar servants from their employers' bathrooms, to Sissy Spacek, marooned in an excruciating dotty-old-lady role as her mother, to Jessica Chastain as a good-hearted white-trash interloper trying to break into a circle as conscious of class as it is bigoted about color.

Worst of all, the pivotal figure of Minny (Octavia Spencer), a motor-mouthed maid with a gift for ruffling white feathers, has been broadened into something approaching a black mammy, then drafted, in the movie's last act, into an episode of The Jeffersons, complete with revenge in the form of chocolate pie containing suspect ingredients.

In his lumbering way, Taylor makes Stockett's story his own by expanding the book's mild lavatorial metaphors for the ill-considered farce that pretty much takes over the movie's last act. All of which shoves into the background some beautifully tempered acting by one of our great character actresses. Holding the line for intelligent restraint, Davis' Aibileen subtly navigates the blend of loyalty and rising anger that binds her to her employers, then leads her to break free. Under Davis' skillful hand, Aibileen emerges as the reluctant heroine of The Help, the dignified face of nonviolent resistance, and the one who argues wordlessly for the union between two people on opposite sides of the racial divide that ends this rather wishful tale.

The Help

  • Director: Tate Taylor
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 137 minutes

Rated PG-13 for thematic material

With: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain

“The Help” based on a best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, a story of three women who take extraordinary risk in writing a novel based on the stories from the view of black maids and nannies. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, a young girl sets out to change the town. Skeeter, who is 21 years old, white, educated from Ole Miss, dreams of becoming a journalist. She returns home to find the family maid, Constantine, gone and no one will explain to her what happened. Skeeter acquires a job as a columnist for the local paper at the being of the movie. Skeeter mother’s only concern is for Skeeter to find a husband. Skeeter’s ambition to become a writer starts with her idea to write a novel about from the view of the black maids and nannies in Jackson. Aibileen, who lost her son after he was ran over and dumped at a hospital, works as a maid for a family. She watches after the seventeenth child of a white family. Minny, Aibileen’s friend and a maid, raises children of her own and keep secrets of the white women she works for.

The unlikely trio begins to write the stories of the life of the maid from their viewpoint. It is socially unacceptable and against the law in Mississippi to discuss integration. Skeeter needs to recruit more maids to tell their stories. However no maids are willing to help until a series of events happen that change their minds. The book published called “The Help” with all of the stories having hidden identities. The white women of the town begin to question who the true characters are and where the book is actually taking place. Some of the women swear up and down it is not Jackson to protect themselves from humiliation. The movie along with the book the three wrote during the movie depicts how life was really like in Jackson for black families. There are several areas within the movie that describe what live is Jackson was like. There is a scene in the movie where Aibileen was in the bathroom, built specifically for her because a white lady in the movies says that black people have different diseases than white people.

In several scenes in the movie, the maids travel on buses that are for black people only or are at the back of a bus with the white people at the front. Skeeter goes to the library in Jackson and gets a book with information about segregation and the laws. Blacks could not attend the same schools and churches as the white people. The transferring of books between whites and blacks was not acceptable. They remained with whoever began using them first. They were to remain with the population that started using them. They also use separate entrances to public buildings. Aibileen tells the story of how her son died and explained that they the white bosses loaded him up in the back of a pickup after being ran over. They dropped him off in front of the colored hospital, honked the horn, and drove away.

He later died at home with a collapsed lung because there was nothing the doctors could do to save him. The list above shows some of the issues that are within the movie about segregation and discrimination. The movie, filmed well, shows the different views of life and shows different things and values affect different people. There are several other movies that I have watched related to this one including Ali, a movie about an amazing African American boxer during the 60s and 70s and his way to winning the heavy weight title. Remember the Titans, a film related to integration of schools during the early 70s. The movie is about a new African American football coach that faces the challenges with a racially integrated football team.

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