The Help is at once a joy to watch for its absorbing yet haunting story and for the superior acting by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. On the other hand, it is nauseating at times to suffer through the scenes of outright cruelty perpetrated by the white women of the south in the early 1960s. It is one thing to read about Jim Crow in a book or listen to an old person nowadays discussing what it was like, but to see reenactments of just how dehumanizing and vindictive the times were is just unsettling. This is an important story, fictional yes, but representative of a time and a place which reminds the audience just how ashamed we should be at aspects of our past.
A few decades ago in the south, it was commonplace for a white family to employ a black maid. Maid is an all encompassing term for house cleaner, cook, nanny, grocery shopper, butler, and every other menial task you could think of. They potty trained the toddlers, read them stories, and pretty much raised the children instead of their mothers who were enjoying that afternoon’s bridge party. This particular story takes place in Jackson, MS and focuses on three main characters.
‘Skeeter’ (Emma Stone) has just graduated from Ole Miss, one of her only clique to do so, and returned home to get her foot in the door at the local paper. It appears she went to school for an education rather than to husband hunt which sets her apart from her friends. She wants to be a writer but does not have the experience to get hired on by a true publishing firm. What really separate Skeeter though is that she has a much more enlightened view on race relations. This is odd. Where did this character pick up the notion that perhaps certain things should not just be left alone and separate but equal is anything but? Skeeter’s mother (Alison Janney) does not display any sentiment towards her maid and Ole Miss was not widely acknowledged to be a bastion of forward and progressive thinking thought in 1963. It is strange that Skeeter is of such a different mold than the rest, but there would be no plot if she was not.
Illicitly, Skeeter starts to interview the black maids of the town. She spends most of her time with Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer). These two maids share with Skeeter their horror stories of maltreatment, child neglect, and every other behind the curtain story their employer would not want anyone else to know. Skeeter is combining all of the maids’ stories into a book to tell the rest of the country what is going on down south from the maids’ perspective this time.
I have a hunch that come awards time, there will be a Best Actress nomination for Viola Davis and a supporting nomination for Octavia Spencer. The film is strongest when they are on screen. Viola showed traces of her character in 2008’s Doubt and this is Octavia’s first true starring role. When the film flips back and focuses on the white women for a time, especially when it shows Skeeter trying to find a boyfriend or argue with her mother, the atmosphere loses its tension and the pacing slows until it gets back on track with the maids. This film is truly unsettling at times, but well worth the audience’s discomfort to show them a time and a place not very long ago which was not just immoral, but malicious.