The Help stars Emma Stone as a well-meaning but not-yet-enlightened wannabe journalist in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. She interviews “the help”, black maids who take care of the homes and raise the white children of the well-off women they work for, to create a book telling their stories.
It’s a stunning, often funny, portrait of the times, with an outstanding cast. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are the maids, while the snooty and/or crazy rich include Sissy Spacek, Jessica Chastain, Anna Camp, Ahna O’Reilly, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Other significant actors include Cicely Tyson, Allison Janney, Mary Steenburgen, and (in a small but significant role) Leslie Jordan.
Stone plays “Skeeter”, the only girl she knows who finished college or has a job. Her first task is ghost-writing a column of home hints. Since she, as a well-brought-up young lady, doesn’t know the first thing about cleaning, she gets help from her friend’s maid, Aibileen (Davis). Skeeter is already a bit more aware than her friends, having left town, but her conversations with Aibileen open her eyes further. (Not enough to realize that if Aibileen is writing the column, she might should get credit and payment for it, though.)
It’s an entertaining movie, very well-made, and the message (that racism is bad, as symbolized by making the help use separate bathrooms) is certainly one we can all agree with, but by making the material approachable for a mass audience, and thus commercial, it also perpetuates some of the same problems of the period it portrays. This is Skeeter’s story, showing the struggles of a girl who wants a different path for her life than the young marrieds. The maids’ stories are told through their interactions with her and her friends. Someday, I hope we get this kind of film without requiring a pretty white woman at its center.
In the meantime, though, The Help is gorgeously made, beautiful to watch (especially if you like period clothes and settings), and captivating to follow. It’s a modern-day The Women, in terms of providing an all-star cast focusing on intricacies of domestic life.
I can see why it was such a success, and why so many people found it both hilarious and heart-breaking. Many women can relate to the tough choices made while trying to take care of your family, as well as the pressures put on you by well-meaning (but very wrong) friends and relatives. You’ll learn just how honey-sweet a spoiled Southern girl can sound while saying the most terrible things. Since it’s 2 1/2 hours, watching at home may be more comfortable than in the theater, especially with the episodic structure.
It strikes me as particularly stupid to let someone into every aspect of your house daily and trust them with raising your children and then be surprised when they want to take revenge when you treat them like dirt. For that matter, treating anyone raising your kid like dirt is stupid. But I was shocked that it was actually against the law to encourage equal civil rights between the races at the time. Talk about legislating stupidity.
“The Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film” is 23 1/2 minutes in which old friends writer/director Tate Taylor and book author Kathryn Stockett talk about being from the South and creating this story. Octavia Spencer, another long-time friend of Taylor’s, also participates, as do various people who provided locations for the shooting in Greenwood, Mississippi.
“In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi” (12 minutes) brings on-screen some of the older women who were housekeepers and maids, often accompanied by their children, who have gone on to college or medical school.
There are five deleted scenes, introduced by Taylor, who explains briefly why they were cut. The only special features on the DVD edition are two of these scenes plus the music video for “The Living Proof” by Mary J. Blige (which is also on the Blu-ray).
There is also a Blu-ray Combo Pack with digital copy, since Disney has decided to start charging extra for those.
If you donate online to Feeding America during this next week, you can get a coupon for $5 off The Help on Blu-ray or DVD. According to press materials, “Every $1.00 donated can help Feeding America provide meals eight meals for people in need. Touchstone Pictures, the affiliate of The Walt Disney Company that distributed The Help, will provide a matching donation of up to $10,000, with a goal of providing more than 200,000 meals to families at risk of hunger.” (The studio provided a review copy.)