The 2011 film The Help is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. The story follows an aspiring writer, “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of college. Set in 1963 in the midst of the civil rights movement, Skeeter begins to notice the poor treatment her white friends give their black hired help. Skeeter becomes inspired to write from the perspective of the help and secretly begins to interview the one of her friend’s maid. The Help is an easy movie to like. It’s a heartwarming story with strong performances from the cast. The strengths of the film make it easy to forget its significant problems, even though we shouldn’t.
In the opening scene we meet Aibileen (Viola Davis) as she tells her story to an off screen interviewer. A 52 year old African-American maid, Aibileen has spent her life raising other people’s children and cleaning their homes. Aibileen explains that she always knew she would be a maid because her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave. When the interviewer asks what it feels like to raise another person’s child while not having time to spend with her own children, Aibileen is unable to answer. Sadly it’s a question the movie never answers either. The interviewer turns out to be Skeeter, who, like the author of the novel, may not have known all the right questions to ask.
Skeeter has just graduated from “Ole Miss” (the University of Mississippi) and dreams of becoming a writer. She had applied for a job with a big publisher, but was told to come back when she had more experience. She ends up taking a job writing a housekeeping advice column at her local newspaper. Skeeter doesn’t know anything about cleaning, so she begins to question Aibileen. After becoming interested in Aibileen’s life, Skeeter wants to tell her story. The two strike up a reluctant friendship. Eventually Skeeter also persuades Aibileen’s friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) to participate.
Minny is quite outspoken, which has caused her to lose most of her jobs. Her most current job was with Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) and her daughter Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). Hilly is an unrepentant racist; she has a phobia of sharing a bathroom with an African-American. Her hatred is so strong she even writes a proposal requiring everyone to build separate bathroom facilities for their hired help. The character of Hilly is so one-dimensional, she borders on ridiculous. Hilly is not only racist but she hates anyone outside her own circle. She’s such a caricature, she comes across as someone straight out of Mean Girls or countless other teen movies. It’s a detriment for The Help because Hilly’s attitudes seem to come more from her own insecurities rather than inherent racism. Hilly is not only ignorant, she’s just plain mean.
Hilly runs a community service group called the Junior League that Skeeter also belongs to. The group organizes a fundraiser to help the starving children of Africa all the while hating the African-American employees who care for their children and live in their homes. It’s an irony that is nearly lost in The Help’s plot. The black and white nature of the story allows us to gloss over the real issues. The hired help is good, their white employers are bad. Poor treatment of the help is a factor, but equality is not. Segregation is only addressed in the subject of who can use what restroom. The outside lives of the hired help, when they’re not working, are barely explored. What Skeeter seems to really want is for the help to simply be better treated in the workplace, rather than advocating for true equality.
The character of Skeeter is also not fully explored. Her modern attitudes are easy for contemporary modern audiences to relate to, but we don’t ever understand where she developed them. She didn’t go to a northern school and her parents and friends certainly don’t share her enlightened feelings. Skeeter’s mom (Allison Janney) wants nothing more than for Skeeter to marry the first guy who proposes. It’s kind of impossible to dislike Skeeter because she does everything “right,” with the audience never glimpsing a misstep. She is nice to the maids, eschews the idea of becoming a housewife, and always aspires to do the right thing. Unfortunately she is just a vehicle for propelling the story rather than a character with any real depth. The only clue we get into her desire to write about the help is her fondness for Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the maid who raised her. Skeeter learns that Constantine no longer works for the family, but no one will tell her the real reasons why.
The true depth comes from Viola Davis as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny. They are both excellent and carry a resonance that the story itself does not. Skeeter eventually compiles all the maids’ stories into a book called The Help which is published anonymously in 1963. However, the 2009 novel The Help is a fantasy of sorts; vaguely historical fiction posing as truth. It’s understandable that someone might believe The Help is based on a collection of true stories from the civil rights era. But these stories were made up by Kathryn Stockett based on her personal experiences growing up in the 70’s and 80’s (post-civil rights movement) with her grandparent’s maid Demetrie. Stockett has even admitted she only interviewed one maid, along with her employer, as research for the novel.
We never get a real sense of what the time period of this story was really like. Instead we are asked to believe that Skeeter was able to interview all these maids in their own neighborhood unnoticed with no repercussions. The Jim Crow laws clearly stated that her activities were illegal. The brutal murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers hangs in the background of the movie, but the danger Skeeter puts herself and the maids in is never fully realized. The KKK and White Citizens’ Council are not even a presence in the lives of these characters, even though the assassination of Evers happened in Jackson. Clearly Jackson suffered from extreme racial tension in those days, but racism is only seen in the employer’s homes, not the community at large.
While The Help is still enjoyable and touching, much of the potential for poignancy is lost. We still don’t know enough about the lives of domestic workers in those early days before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It makes wish for a real, non-fiction account of those times. It makes me wish that Skeeter’s book within the book were real. The ideas presented in The Help are very compelling. The characters are quite interesting, though underdeveloped at times. The film’s director, Tate Taylor, is a childhood friend of Stockett’s. The two worked together on this project. I can’t help but wonder what could have been done with the material if a more objective interpreter had handled it. On the other hand, the movie itself is well made and the performances make it worth viewing despite some of the story flaws.
The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p HD AVC encoding 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The picture quality is excellent, with clear, sharp details. Every facial expression, from the most subtle glance to the most agonized grimace, is captured perfectly. The film’s landscape is bright and sunny, with all those pastel colors perfectly displayed in high definition. The color scheme helps create the differences between the employers and the help. For instance, the neighborhood of the employees is drab, while the employers’ homes have lush green lawns. The help wear plain drab dresses while their employers wear colorful flowery dresses. The sound is presented in DST-HD Master Audio 5.1. The surround channels create an immersive experience during outdoor scenes, as well as during large gatherings such as the Junior League meetings. Atmospheric sounds like birds, crickets, and wind blowing through the trees help create a realistic audio background for the film. Dialog is clear and easy to understand, even the most quietly whispered lines.
The special features on the disc include two featurettes, five deleted scenes, and the music video for Mary J. Blige’s “The Living Proof.” The first featurette, “From Friendship to Film,” primarily discusses the development of the film and the locations used. The piece gives some interesting background information but would have been more interesting if there were more about the actual making of The Help. It’s really more about the friendship between director Tate and novelist Stockett and their excitement in getting the movie produced. The second featurette, “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi,” features Octavia Spencer and Tate talking with actual domestic workers. Overall the extras found on The Help are not as extensive they could have been for such a popular film.