White families with means employ black maids and nannies, one of whom is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis). Aibileen works for the Leefolt family, raising their little girl and cooking, cleaning, serving and keeping a low profile. Aibileen’s friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) works for Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a snooty, mean-spirited, social-climbing segregationist whose pet project is passage of a household sanitation law requiring that black household servants have separate bathrooms. In the domestic arena, where black women, the descendants of slaves, raise and nurture white children, where black and white coexist in the same house (though they are hardly co-equals), the separate-but-equal bathroom issue becomes an ignition point in Jackson – a final indignity for the maids and a reinforcement of the Jim Crow color barriers for the Southern women holding the lines at the home front. Minny is fired by Hilly over the bathroom issue, and is then forced to work for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the only woman in Jackson immune to Hilly’s chilling influence. Hilly actively snubs Celia, whom she regards as white trash.
Meanwhile, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a young would-be journalist freshly graduated from college, returns to Jackson. She gets a job writing a newspaper advice column about household cleaning. She’s no domestic goddess, however, and so seeks the help of Aibileen. Skeeter’s family maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) disappeared while Skeeter was away at college, and Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney), sick with cancer, refuses to divulge what happened to her. Skeeter, offended by the racism that she sees in her hometown, becomes interested in what life is like for the help, and sets out to write a book in which the dirty laundry of white Jackson promises to get aired.
The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel and written and directed by Tate Taylor, is essentially an upstairs/downstairs tale of two worlds. The maids are far more interesting than the white women for whom they work. Indeed, Hilly Holbrook exists primarily as a segregationist caricature, and her main function in the film is to be malicious and haughty enough to be the recipient of a satisfying comeuppance and a helping of just deserts (and desserts). Skeeter is more a familiar type than a fully formed character; her role as instigator is to encourage Minny and Aibileen to let their voices be heard – and to its credit, the film is as interested in their voices, their trials and tribulations, as it is in the teapot tempests that occupy the shallow society set. That said, it would help the movie if it paid even less attention to the white women of Jackson, and particularly Skeeter, and focused more completely on the help.
The movie peripherally takes note of the civil rights struggle, but that angle is played down while Skeeter is played up as a rebel: a Southern woman who doesn’t believe in segregation and, moreover, is a nascent feminist who doesn’t think that she needs a husband to be complete. To that end, the movie spends far too much time on Skeeter’s rocky romance with an oilrig worker. Hers is the kind of mildly interesting character that makes you wonder if she isn’t there just for the sake of appearances, and to give the movie a sympathetic white character.
The movie’s efforts to turn Skeeter into a heroic figure don’t really fly, because she’s got nothing on Aibileen and Minny. The Help is buoyed considerably by Davis’ luminous, grounded performance. Aibileen’s powerful, quiet dignity and her transformation from resignation to resolve give The Help a depth that belies the movie’s glossy, cheerful surface. Spencer provides sassy comic relief – a kind of unquiet, eye-rolling, indignant dignity that is quite different from Aibileen’s grace. But she also provides several of the movie’s most intriguing scenes, because Minny and Celia (who is the film’s most sympathetic white woman) have an interesting relationship. Both are social outcasts who got on the wrong side of Hilly Holbrook, and they have much in common despite the obvious, superficial differences.
When The Help steers too much towards shallow sentimentality, what help push it back toward the deep end are Davis’ subtle, moving and absorbing performance and the poignant, unlikely friendship between Minny and Celia, both of whom show more courage and gumption than Skeeter. The Help is entertaining and modestly provocative, but it leaves you wanting to know much, much more about the lives of the help.