Writers and filmmakers have mined the mother lode of Southern life for decades. The unique nature of the region provides colorful characters with both dramatic and comedic elements.
“The Help,” based on the best-seller by Kathryn Stockett, joins this collection.
We are presented a story about domestics, maids that work for white families in the early 1960s.
The story is framed around the white Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who works to collect the stories of these African-American women who raise the children and tend the homes of their white employers.
The focus is on Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), the maid whose voice narrates the story.
Aibileen has raised more than a dozen white children. Her current charge is a toddler named Mae Mobley, who is neglected by her mother, which causes Aibileen to fret for the little girl and her unborn brother.
The other focus is on Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Minny worked for Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) until she was thought to have used the toilet in the house.
Hilly believes in the ideal of “separate but equal,” even when it comes to toilet use. Using the toilet is the unpardonable sin for Minny, and Hilly exiles her.
Hilly, being petty and mean, is the villain of the movie. She is the president of the local Junior League and wields her power to disenfranchise those she deems less than her. A good example is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain).
Celia is “poor white trash” that happened to marry Hilly’s former boyfriend, and Hilly does all she can to keep Celia out of the town’s social circle.
All these subplots whirl around the larger story: Skeeter’s determination to document the stories of these women who love children that aren’t their own and tend to homes they’re not even allowed to use the toilet in.
It takes time, but Skeeter gets her interviews, and the book is published. The townspeople read and discover that, though the names are changed, they are in it.
“The Help” is a wonderfully shot, beautifully acted movie. Because it is based on a hugely best-selling novel, it will do well at the box office. But…
It’s too sugar-coated to be real. Those days were filled with reprisals when a person stepped out of place.
Bombs blew up churches, and men were lynched. It was a dangerous time in the South, especially in Mississippi, where the movie is set.
We get hints of that. The time period here overlaps the murder of Medgar Evers, which catches up Aibileen in one brief scene. But there is no real threat on the African-American characters, save losing a job.
The film would have done well to show the viewers what happened to African-Americans who were “sassy” or acted “uppity.”
On a personal note, the movie did touch me. I grew up in the days of Jim Crow and knew full well about “separate but equal.”
My first movie-going experience was at the Carolina Theater in Lumberton, N.C. There were two entrances: one for whites and one for colored.
It also reminded me of the lady who came to our house to clean and look after my sister and me. Her name was Isadora. She did not come daily like the women in the movie, but she came twice a week.
My most vivid memory of her was when we had lunch. We sat at the table and ate, and Isadora sat at the stove.
She wouldn’t sit with us because it was “wrong” for whites and African-Americans to sit down to eat together. I never understood why.
“The Help” did not provide any answers, and I think it’s flawed for its incomplete picture of the danger, but it did remind me of my early childhood.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material.
Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Tate Taylor (based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett)
Aibileen Clark: Viola Davis; Minny Jackson: Octavia Spencer; Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan: Emma Stone; Hilly Holbrook: Bryce Dallas Howard; Celia Foote: Jessica Chastain.
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.