Movies that take place during the Civil Rights era have become their own genre and one that sometimes diminishes the characters and their stories by making everyone into a hero, a villain, or a martyr. The Help tries to expand those roles by showing that not all southern white people in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi are vile racists, not all black people are born courageous activists, and that while the battle lines were clearly defined as right and wrong, some people had to do some soul-searching to find where they stood. The movie stumbles when it forgets to shade its characters and by being too faithful to the book at the expense of effectively translating the story to the screen. But despite these missteps, The Help manages to deliver some powerful emotional moments due in large part to yet another tremendous performance from Viola Davis.
As Aibileen Clark (Davis) explains in the opening scene, black maids raise the children of affluent white people and then they end up working for those children. For Aibileen, raising children isn’t a curse but a blessing and she loves to do it. It’s the mothers, in particular her employers (and some would argue, her owners in a society that has clung to any remnant of slavery they can find) that are the problem. They’re selfish and entitled and see both their children and their help as accessories rather than people. When Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) comes back to Jackson after graduating from Ole Miss she wants to be a writer. She gets a job at a local newspaper writing for the “Miss Myrna” column which offers cleaning advice. She happily accepts it as a start and asks her friend Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), who is Aibileen’s employer, if Aibileen (Davis) will help with the column. But as Skeeter wrestles with the mysterious departure of Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the maid who raised her, she decides to write a book from the perspective of Aibileen and her fellow maids.
The Help does a solid job of showing why maids like Aibileen and her friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) are reluctant to share their stories. They could lose their jobs, get blackballed by their former employers, and put their very lives at risk by the swell of racist hatred in Jackson. But eventually, Aibileen and Minny are pushed too far, particularly by the actions of evil rich white person Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), and feel compelled to tell Skeeter their stories.
The storylines of Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny is where The Help lives and where its most powerful moments come from. The movie wisely makes sure to not turn Skeeter into the hero whose magnanimous actions make her the savior of Jackson’s black community. She’s simply a vehicle for the maids to tell their stories. She does have her own arc and her story is richest when she fondly remembers her time with Constantine and now has to deal with the cowardice of her mother (Allison Janney) and her lifelong friends. But the movie drags her story down with an unnecessary love story and ridiculously trying to convince the audience that men have never been attracted to someone who looks like Emma Stone.
Minny’s storyline fares better. She serves mostly as the comic relief but Spencer does get to handle some drama when she builds a relationship with Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a ditzy newcomer to Jackson who doesn’t understand why she’s become a pariah to Hilly and her cadre of shallow women. Taylor (who also wrote the screenplay) tries to add some more drama by bringing in Minny’s abusive husband Leroy as a background character but we never see him. It’s as if seeing a black person behave in an undignified light would be detrimental to the film. I don’t believe it’s racist to show that anyone of any race can be a bad person. Since The Help tries to show that balance among the character of white people, it feels disrespectful to use kid gloves when showing the diversity of character among the black characters.
Instead, The Help shades the African-American characters with respectable fear. The movie never makes us think that the maids who won’t tell Skeeter their stories are cowardly, but it hammers home the courage of the maids that choose to speak up. Aibileen embodies this conflict between self-preservation and reexamining what exactly is being preserved. Davis gives an Oscar-worthy performance as she balances the strength, intelligence, fear, regret, and love wound up in her character. There will inevitably be talk about whether Davis should be submitted in the Best Supporting Actress or Best Actress category, but to me there’s no question: this is a leading performance and it’s the reason to see this movie.
Taylor had no problem in developing the characters of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, which is why it’s bizarre to see someone so one-note and predictable as Hilly. She’s a racist, shallow, and hateful human being. The end. At one point, Hilly’s mother (Sissy Spacek) says to her daughter, “Your father spoiled you,” whatever the hell that means. So her dad was a vile, hateful racist? Then why is Hilly’s mother kind to Milly? You never have any idea where Hilly’s behavior comes from, Howard never hints at a deeper character, and the conclusion that some people are just rotten is ill-befitting a movie that wants to probe deeper.
There are times when The Help is a little too broad or a little too saccharine and it’s certainly a little too long. You could shave off about half an hour from the movie and it would be far more effective in telling its story. But if you can get past the sluggish pace and the uninteresting character of Hilly, you’re going to find a thoughtful movie that goes beyond the clichés of the Civil Rights Era drama and instead finds a touching story that’s bolstered by strong performances from Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, and an outstanding one from Viola Davis.