Those Who Help Themselves
The Museum of Modern Art’s annual December-January “The [Awards] Contenders” packs them in, and The Help was sold out. Director Tate Taylor did his screenplay from also-white childhood friend and fellow Mississippian Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller début, and, based on actual conditions, the feel-good results deliver in both media. Aimed at heart and conscience, novel and film have their overdone moments but remain worthy of close attention.
Location Greenwood filling in for Jackson, the whites’ antebellum mansions and new ranch houses, the neat flimsy blacks’ shacks, the ersatz grandeur of downtown civic buildings, the manicured lawns, even the oppressive temperature and humidity, back the picture of Deep South attitudes on the 1963 cusp of Civil Rights.
Obscenities in that day and place are euphemisms, but the script also avoids some terms that were common, for instance mammy (for nursemaid). The era’s paternalistic racism and condescension are, nevertheless, spot-on.
Good and bad are not totally codified by race -- gauche white trash Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is colorblind -- and some have the courage to change their spots (Allison Janney’s Charlotte Phelan), while others reveal nastiness underneath (Chris Lowell’s Stuart Whitworth). A real complaint is that it is all too predictable, even if that is how the public prefers its moral fables. In any case, the pleasing film is not so pat or condescending in its stereotypes as The Women on the 6th Floor, last year’s French view of exotic élan vital among Spanish housecleaners in dour 1960s Paris.
College graduate Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) aspires to authorship. Superficial as it turns out, Harper & Row editor Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen) recommends writerly experience before tackling New York, so for starters she does the Jacksonville Journal’s “Miss Myra” column. In a society where the twenty-three-year-old is borderline spinster, her ill mother Charlotte worries that she is a lesbian, but the independent, never-dated daughter is more concerned with the foggy reasons behind the departure of Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson), a family domestic she has loved since childhood (Lila Rogers).
The tiny tomboyish white heroine is not one to bite her tongue on matters of hypocrisy or injustice. The two black ones, on the other hand, must stay respectful and silent about family secrets observed and demeaning treatment received.
Harboring sorrow at an only child’s unnecessary death, maid Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) works for Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly) and loves the weak vacuous woman’s blonde Baby Girl, whom she is potty training even while she herself is denied use of the family’s toilet.
The strong silent maid writes for herself and occasionally voiceovers the film. Among the army of grey-uniformed maids is best friend, garrulous food-loving Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), employed in the household of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a self-serving socialite chairing attention-getting humanitarian gesture-causes, soliciting hollow applause for maids, and harboring potential-husband-stealing hatred for ostracized ditzy Celia.
Skeeter’s breakthrough project will be a book of tell-it-like-it-is interviews with the hometown’s hitherto voiceless Negro maids. Only thoughtful Aibileen is initially open to the idea, but Minny is coaxed aboard, a whirlwind asset, though more women from the tight community are needed.
Fired by Hilly and hired by grateful Celia, Minny takes scatological revenge on the former, an incident hilarious alike for the audience and the hypocrite’s resentful mother, Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek). This is not inserted for mere humor, for it provides later de facto blackmail when, participants’ names changed, Skeeter’s “by Anonymous” The Help is published to become a succès de scandale in the town.
For that nationally acclaimed book to have been completed, however, something needed to happen to galvanize eleven other maids to come forward as volunteers for inclusion. That this involves police brutality is not unrealistic, nor is it a surprise that Skeeter and the black women’s courage leads to the author’s reconciliation with her mother and, a sign that the times they are a’changin’, to a voiced sense of worth (plus a bit of cash) for the downtrodden. The pen is indeed mightier.
(Released by DreamWorks Studios and rated “PG-13” for thematic material.)