I had my doubts about The Help. While the promise of a lovingly executed reconstruction of the 1960s in the deep south of the USA most definitely appealed to me, the concept of white women questioning their black maids about their experiences of servitude made me feel a little uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the word of mouth about The Help has turned this film into quite a hit and so I thought I’d take a chance. Happily, I experienced almost two and a half hours of pure entertainment but this might not have been entirely what I wanted.
In The Help, young white girl Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home from college to her mum (the always wonderful Allison Janney). When she arrives home Skeeter discovers that the maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has gone. But women such as Constantine aren’t just maids. The white women of Mississippi have been raised by these black women. And yet, as they’ve grown into women and mothers themselves, they’ve become their parents, treating these maids as nothing more than chattels, to be left in a will like goods. Skeeter is different. Her mother was different but, because of the attitude of her so-called friends, she turned Constantine away and Skeeter loses her second mother.
Skeeter is one of the few young women who sees more in her future than looking after a husband and home and so she gets a job at the local paper answering letters as a kind of housework agony aunt. Of course, Skeeter knows very little about cooking and cleaning tips and so she turns to Aibileen (Viola Davis), the maid of her friend Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly). As Skeeter watches Aibileen care for Elizabeth’s unloved toddler she wants to know what it is like for a woman to raise the child of another woman without being able to spend time with her own child. From this seed grows the idea for a book – the stories of the hired help. Persuading these women to tell their tales is another matter, with lynchings and shootings always a risk and cruelty constant.
On one side of The Help we have the white women, led by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a woman so evil you want to hiss at the screen. Besides Hilly, Elizabeth, Skeeter and their older kin, there is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a voluptuous young bride and, in the opinion of the community, a husband stealer. You don’t have to be black to be ostracised in this world. On the other side there is Aibileen and her good friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), both of whom, with their colleagues all in identical uniforms, suffer humiliations, summed up by Hilly’s decree that bans maids from white people’s toilets. Not that there aren’t ways for the help to get some payback…
The Help looks great – it is seeped in the 1960s – and there are some truly moving scenes. The relationship between Skeeter and her mother is particularly effective, reminding me how much I enjoy Allison Janney. The moments between Aibileen and the poor ungainly daughter of Elizabeth will get you for sure. Fine acting from everyone concerned contributes to making The Help a thoroughly enjoyable film. But I never quite rid myself of the feeling that it was all a little patronising and easy, not quite doing justice to the subject matter. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how fast this long film flew by as I soaked it up. For that, I think we can thank the cast.