Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Help’: America’s Come a Long Way

BY Mark Jackson TIMEJanuary 26, 2022 PRINT

PG-13 | 2h 26m | Period Drama | August 10, 2011

“The Help” (2011), written and directed by Tate Taylor, based on a book by his childhood friend Kathryn Stockett, upon first viewing, appears to be yet another “white savior” film.

Like “Glory” (1989), “Dangerous Minds” (1996), “Amistad” (1997), “Finding Forrester” (2000), “The Last Samurai” (2003), and “Half Nelson” (2006). Also, “Freedom Writers” (2007), “Gran Torino” (2008), “Avatar” (2009), and “The Blind Side” (2009) before it.

That doesn’t make it a bad film. “The Help” is an excellent film. None of the above films are bad films.  “White savior” is Wikipedia’s term. The wonderful thing about the movies is the medium’s ability to be both educational and entertaining, to inform while simultaneously to inspireNobody’s about to go to the movies to get an earful of soapbox, so it’s no small feat to make a movie about virulent, 1960’s era American deep-South racism, keep an audience’s attention, and provide a few life lessons.

Skeeter

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, “The Help” stars Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent graduate of Ole Miss. Her pre-feminist streak has her avoiding finding a husband and having babies, to her mother’s profound alarm and dissatisfaction (Allison Janney). Skeeter wants to be a writer.

woman with typewrite in THE HELP
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is a wannabe writer, in “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

She’d love to move to New York but knows she’d best prove herself journalistically before attempting that daunting hero’s journey. And so, cajoling the publisher of a local newspaper to offer her a job, she’s promptly assigned the “homemaker hints” column, something she’s got practically no experience with.

Skeeter asks neighborhood maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) for help. The sessions on homemaking and housekeeping soon evolve into confessionals from poverty-level black maids who work for white elites. Anticipating that decades of humiliation, anger, depression, and shame would, through the release valve of confidentiality, result in a torrent of heretofore unimaginable stories, Skeeter smells book potential.

Let the Notetaking Begin

Skeeter pitches her idea to a New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) about interviewing Southern African-American maids only two generations removed from their house slave grandmothers. However, even the publisher knows that with Jim Crow laws presiding in the deep South, getting black maids to talk would be no easy feat. It was illegal.

black and white women talk in THE HELP
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) start having talks, in “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

In the grand New York tradition of beating the showbiz catch-22 whereby to get a job you need to be considered legit and to be considered legit you need a job—Skeeter fudges the truth and says she’s already got an interview lined up. Skeeter eventually asks Aibileen (while being nagged by her publisher) if more maids might come forward with their stories. Aibileen, after being compassionately wheedled and cajoled by Skeeter, reluctantly agrees and eventually puts her in contact with other maids who have stories to tell.

group of black maids in THE HELP
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, L) assembles a group of maids with stories to tell about their work life, in “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The interviews commence; many maids step forward, including the hilarious Minny (Octavia Spencer) one of the area’s greatest unsung cooks. One story focuses on Minny’s merciless, mean-girl employer, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), local Junior League president, who was bound and determined to get a bill passed requiring white families to build separate bathrooms for the help (“They carry different diseases”).

During a tornado, instead of using the outhouse, Minny had the temerity to use Hilly’s bathroom. She’s promptly fired. Minny’s revenge, in the form of a very stealthy, extremely tasty, but also extremely nasty-ingredient-saturated chocolate pie, immediately tickled the imagination of America’s pop-culture universe. After Minny’s firing, however, trashy-but-beautiful hapless housewife Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) ends up hiring Minny to teach her to cook in order to save her marriage.

chocolate pie in THE HELP
The notorious chocolate pie, baked by Minny for her former employer Hilly Holbrook, in “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Minny’s rescue of Celia’s marital life, Hilly’s comeuppance, Skeeter’s journey to becoming a writer (not to mention Aibileen’s similar journey), and the collective catharsis of many maids finally getting to tell their side of the story, carries immense cinematic satisfaction.

blond woman with coke and black maid in THE HELP
Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) beginning a beautiful employer-employee relationship, in “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Performances

Emma Stone is stuck in the role of the idealistic, activist cinematic stereotype of young white adults during the civil rights era. She often feels completely current, and therefore at times out of place. And yet that idealism was of course what drove New York kids Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney to drive to Mississippi and assist in black voter registrations and it’s what got them killed by the Ku Klux Klan (depicted in 1998’s “Mississippi Burning”). Idealism is the needed element to overcome complacency and fear in order to go march with MLK, among other activist ventures, and so it’s not a stereotype, but truth.

two women in an argument in THE HELP
Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) and Hilly Hobrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) about to come to blows, in “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The film’s bravura performance comes from Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, whose Beehive-hair-do’d, stilettoed-heeled, iron-hand-in-velvet-gloved evil is such that she’d be easy to pick out of one of those 1930’s group photos where charred black men smolder in a fire pit while someone snapped a celebratory picture. Her matter-of-fact belief in her superiority is unshakeable. Some actresses might have opted for the occasional flash of humanity to mitigate the sting, so as to avoid audiences associating them with that level of human soul-deficiency, but Howard goes all out fearlessly and lets the truth of such a world-view stand there and be seen.

black woman, white girl in THE HELP
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) after being fired, saying goodbye to of one of the 17 white children she’s helped raise over the years, in “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Viola Davis is rock solid and very moving, giving “The Help” immense emotional depth in portraying Aibileen’s powerful dignity and quiet pride. Aibileen knows that she’s risking her job and her life by confiding in Skeeter. She feels the fear and does it anyway; letting her story be heard to honor her son, the military vet, who, working in a lumber yard, had a lung crushed due to foreman negligence and was dumped unceremoniously outside a colored hospital, left to die, and indeed died on her couch.

three women in THE HELP
(L–R) Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis). The two maids convince would-be writer Skeeter that she needs to have the courage to go on her hero’s journey to New York and be a writer, in “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Minny was Octavia Spencer’s breakout performance. Spencer’s performance is no less emotionally resonant, but carries more righteous anger, as well as much of the humor.

“The Help” entertains while teaching about America’s troubled racist past. Without minimizing the struggle, “The Help” will make you laugh, cry, and contemplate how far we’ve come as a society, how much has radically changed since the 1960s and, given our current racial climate, reflect on how much more progress we need.

movie poster for THE HELP
Movie poster for “The Help.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

‘The Help’
Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney
Running Time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Aug. 10, 2011
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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