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.