Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is a fresh graduate from the prestigious southern college, Ole Miss. She pops back into her hometown, Jackson Mississippi, with wide eyes and the lofty ambition of being a writer. But that feat is made harder when she has to reconcile with the blatant racism and discrimination against the town’s black residents at the hands of her social circle and its leader, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).
This escalates when Hilly decides to champion a law that makes it mandatory for each household to have a separate bathroom for black workers. Skeeter befriends two black maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Milly (Octavia Spencer) and decides to write a tell all detailing the experiences black maids endure in white households amidst the 1960’s civil rights movement. It’s just as hard as it sounds.
For Aibileen Clark, being a maid was all there was to life. As she states in the film’s opening, her mom was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave. That was the reality for most black workers in America’s deeply segregated south. This sentiment is shared by the other predominantly black house maids in Jackson, Mississippi. Enter Skeeter. She’s the plucky, fresh white female graduate looking to be taken seriously as a writer in the world of male dominated journalism.
Skeeter is thrust back into reality when she sits down for a social outing with her old gal pals. It’s a pretty uncomfortable scene for modern viewers to watch a cluster of white women talk about the different diseases black people are perceived to carry. But it’s just an entry point to the realities of that time. We follow Skeeter’s awakening alongside Milly’s rebellion towards her racist employers and Aibileen’s healing journey and self-discovery. Together they explore the stupid notion that black maids can take care of white children and clean white households but can’t use the same bathroom due to germs, which sadly was a common ideology at the time.
Writer and Director Tate Taylor adapted this screenplay from Kathleen Stockett’s original 2009 novel of the same title. He’s from Jackson, Mississippi, so setting the scene came naturally to him. The southern drawl is heavily prominent in the dialogue which matches the novel’s tone.
The film does carry a few conversations that drag a little, especially when characters reveal their inner thoughts to one another, as in the case of interactions between Aibileen and Skeeter, but the flow is still notably comfortable.
Though there was some criticism of Tate’s screenplay, particularly the perspective changes from a black maid to the white protagonist, Skeeter, regarding the scene about the assassination of prominent activist, Medgar Evers, he received some praise overall.
Tate Taylor’s interpretation of the novel improved on its sometimes choppy and hard to understand monologues. He also tried to humanize the often-misinterpreted vernacular of the maids to a certain degree. His work earned him the 2012 Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, the 2012 Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Adapted Screenplay nomination and the 2012 NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture.
Characters and acting
Though the film is centered around Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone, it’s Viola Davis who shines as Aibileen Clark. Davis later on expressed deep regret in playing the titular character but that doesn’t take away from her strong portrayal which garnered her a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination. She carries the film with her ability to dive into each emotion, be it joy or grief. Then there’s the sarcastic, snarky Milly Jackson, played by Octavia Spencer. Octavia inspired the character in Stockett’s novel and gives some lighthearted humor to the narrative.
The nasty nuisance, Hilly Holbrook played by Bryce Dallas Howard, bears the burden of the single most repulsive character in the film. Though she pulls off the character well, there’s a lack of complexity and realism to Hilly. She’s more of a caricature of what racism looks like, making it difficult for audiences to point out any prejudices they might have hidden within themselves. Bryce has stated that she would not take the role up again, given that she felt the film told mostly white stories from white perspectives.
Music and cinematography
Being a Jackson native himself, Tate Taylor took the setting seriously and even scouted the areas within Mississippi where the movie would be filmed. He took numerous pictures and worked in tandem with master cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt to bring the realism from the film’s set period to life. Goldblatt is no stranger to period pieces, having done stunningly accurate work on the James Brown biopic, Get on Up.
The film’s diverse tone and emotional range is cemented by Thomas Neman’s score. Newman’s nuanced musical choices in prominent films such as Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile carries over into The Help with a healthy mix of lighthearted piano tunes and deep vocals from the likes of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.
If you’re up for a more diluted, lighthearted take on the gruesome history of the 1960’s civil rights movement while enjoying brilliant female led performances and amazing set design, then The Help is your kind of movie. This film could be easily viewed with a cup of sweet southern iced tea in hand.