Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Tate Taylor, Kathryn Stockett (novel)
Length: 2h 17m
Synopsis: Rural Mississippi in the 1960s, before the civil rights movement gained much momentum, was a cesspool of racism and bigotry. In the town of Jackson, where every upper-middle class housewife hires the services of a negro maid to cook, clean, and raise her children, recent college grad Skeeter (Stone) decides to collect testimonies from the maids of her friends and neighbors. Looking to reveal the level of hardship these women go through on a daily basis, Skeeter’s project commences with the testament of a maid named Aibileen (Davis) who works for her friend Hilly (Howard). As the stories get darker Skeeter can’t help but become more involved, and before she knows it her sympathies for negroes ostracizes her. She and the women she interviews, with tensions growing throughout the town, grow increasingly disconcerted, but despite the dangerous risks they take they must believe that their collaboration is for a higher purpose. When fortune smiles and Skeeter’s work is published as a compilation of anonymous depositions a palpable sense of relief can be felt, as though the gravity of what they accomplished had drastically changed their world in an instant. However, the reality is that what they had done had not yet changed their world as they had hoped, but it did begin to change. And in a town where progress hadn’t been seen in ages, to see it again at all is enough to provide hope that they might get to see even more of it.
Analysis: For those still relatively unfamiliar with the story of The Help you may be curious as to why Skeeter, who was born and raised in the same social environment as the prejudiced people she abhors, came to be so sympathetic to the negro maids in her town. The reason is that she, unlike her peers, acknowledges that she was in fact raised by the maid her mother hired to take care of her. The biggest delusion that prevents the well-off mothers and housewives from fairly valuing the maids is that they consider themselves every bit the mentor and caretaker that the status of motherhood is associated with, while in reality they contribute little or nothing to teaching their children values such as self-worth, responsibility, or humility. Skeeter had long since recognized this delusion in her own mother who, while admittedly not devoid of maternal instincts, resigned most of her motherly duties to the help. So thanks to her proper perspective Skeeter is able to see the great value inherent in the work that many of Jackson’s maids provides. And because she is able to see the true value that they bring she is also able to appreciate the great extent of their mistreatment.
That appreciation, it should be said, does not and cannot come just from casual observation, but comes from hearing the stories told by, among others, Aibileen and her friend Minny (Spencer). In hearing their stories Skeeter is enlightened of exactly how white prejudice affects their work. Well-meaning counsel and advice is ignored because they’re thought to lack sufficient insight due to their color, personal needs like the use of a restroom are met with only the slightest consideration, and an unyielding suspicion of insubordination that borders on paranoia must be constantly refuted. What Skeeter comes to fully realize is a truth that Aibileen, Minny, and the women like them already knew, which is that they are not just undervalued as keystones in the families they work for but as people who more than anything just want to make a living for their own families. Aibileen’s story, we come to gather, is, on top of this truth, particularly harrowing. As a mother no longer raising her own child she invests her love and emotion all the more in the children she is entrusted to care for. And when one instance after another reminds her of how neglectful those children’s mothers are of that investment she can’t help but feel as worthless as those mothers see her to be. She knows well enough that she is not actually worthless by any measure, but the total lack of appreciation for her standing as a person has become so taxing that her expectations for deliverance have all but completely vanished. It is only when Skeeter begins to understand and fully recognize that standing that Aibileen’s solemnity begins to fade, but hope, she warns, can be a bitter tease if not eventually rewarded.
One might initially assume that much of the purpose behind making a film like this, as it might be in writing the novel, is to shed light on the circumstances that could commonly be found in American societies during a time still in recent memory when civil rights were not afforded to anyone outside of one bubble of the “majority” or another, ostensibly encouraging us to reflect on how such circumstances relate to modern conditions. And while this may be one of several secondary functions, it would seem that, upon closer examination, its greatest purpose is to exhibit a tale of personal and social triumph. The Help is a perfect example of artists trying to use fiction to impart truth. It is one thing to read or hear about a woman’s sorrows, it is another to see the expressions on her face when telling stories of how intolerance has so damagingly affected her life. To see so unambiguously the tears shed for the kind of pain that can only be had by someone who has so much love to give but receives nothing but baseless mistrust and contempt is to see an appreciable example of the cost that such blind hatred has on the hated. But likewise, to see the tears shed for the kind of joy that can only be had in reception of utterly grateful appreciation is to see the good that can come when such hatred is countered by acts of genuine human interest. The Help is a story meant to not just warn against hate, but to encourage us that even the most loathsome and pervasive hate can be challenged and overcome if those who are good can muster enough courage. And courage itself can be shown in many ways, not the least impressive of which can simply be to remain collected and patient. They say fortune favors the brave, and you will find that many in The Help are some of the bravest you’ve ever seen.
Heads Up: Expect to see Viola Davis on the list of Oscar nominees for Best Actress