THE HELP, based on the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, gently but firmly peels away they dry rot of racism that festered beneath the gracious, etiquette obsessed façade of southern gentility before the civil rights movement. What is remarkable, and a remarkably difficult line to walk, is that it does so while also showing the complexity of the one-to-one relationships formed between the African-American maids employed by middle- and upper-class white women during these times, and their families that employed them. The story is almost devoid of the men who were part of these womens lives. The story of the relationships between men of different races at that time is not the purview of the story, in fact, the lives of women and men were as segregated as those of the races in question.
For generations, black women came into the homes of white women, cleaned their houses, cooked their meals, and raised their children. It was, as beautifully depicted here, a deeply intimate relationship, but one with lines that were not crossed. So deeply ingrained were the customs and prejudices, that the idea of questioning them almost never came up. Almost. In the case of THE HELP, its Skeeter (Emma Stone), a woman with a tangle of emphatic red hair, and a burning desire for a writing career not the traditional home and family. Shes newly graduated from Ole Miss in 1963 and returning to the bosom of her family and her circle of friends, now all married with children and maids. Perhaps its the disappearance of her familys maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), whose abrupt departure, after decades of service, no one wants to discuss, perhaps its the new perspective of being the single woman in the group that lets her notice the way her friends treat their servants. As children, they adored the black women who were there to wipe their noses and listen to their daily adventures; as adults, they are dismissive, talking about them as if they werent there, and spouting racism of the most insidiously casual kind.
Director Tate Taylor, a lifelong friend of Stockett, captures the essence of those times with uncomplicated precision. When Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the cold ice-queen bee of her social set, proudly announces that her idea to mandate separate bathrooms for the help because they carry different diseases has caught the attention of the lieutenant governor, the shot of her self-satisfied smugness cuts to the face of her maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis). Aibileen, inured to the status quo, barely registers the insult as she stands next to Hilly, but its in that barely preceptible shadow of hurt and anger that the story of a time and place is told with stunning, infuriating clarity. Skeeters reaction is more pronounced, but even her shock is muted, and that she changes the subject rather than challenging Hilly speaks volumes. When she takes the unprecedented step of then privately apologizing to Aibileen, Taylor lets the expressions on each womans face in the pregnant silence that follows tell its own paradigm-changing story.
Its a moment that also gives Skeeter the idea to write a book about life from the point of the view of the help, one that she must finish quickly before, as her New York editor puts it, this whole civil rights thing blows over. Its an idea that is fraught with the danger of more than just getting fired if Aibileen tells the truth, a fact brought home by the story of Medgar Evans dominating the headlines and television reports that are in the background of the film. Aibileen eventually agrees, despite the implacable resistance of her best friend and mutual support, Minny (Octavia Spencer), Hillys new maid. Minny has no love for her employer, but she adores Hillys only occasionally lucid mother (Sissy Spacek). When her patient if grudging toleration of Hillys viciousness reaches its limits, it inspires a revenge has a profane poetry of monumental proportions that will inform the rest of the story. Spencer all but steals the film from a formidable cast that is the quintessence of ensemble acting. Hers is a face of uncommon beauty powered by a solid performance of such vibrancy that it leaps off the screen even in its many quiet moments of introspection. Imbued with her whole lively heart, it is by turns funny, tragic, compassionate, proud and fearful, and always there is a keen sense of herself as a woman of quality in a world that refuses to recognize it. Davis has the quiet dignity of a broken heart and no options, but its Spencers Minny who signals the way the times are changing when she, too finally agrees to talk to Skeeter. Stone is the perfect counterpoint. Bright, bubbling, and fierce without being caustic, exploring the new freedoms she is creating for herself and others with a sense of delight and determination. Its a performance that is as subtle as Skeeter isnt and all the better for it.
The snobbishness of Jacksons elite, the hypocrisy it breeds seeing color and class rather than people, and the sublimated unhappiness it causes everyone is a nice metaphor for the proposition that if some are not free, no one can be free, with the inclusion of the white-trash element who married up. The loud but sweet Celia (Jessica Chastain) welcomes Minny into her house with open arms, ragged desperation, and a first-class generosity of spirit. Yet her respect for the first maid shes ever had creates its own uncomfortable, yet revolutionary atmosphere for Minny.
THE HELP has its own revolutionary atmosphere, refusing to divide the world into, pardon the expression, black and white. Without intricacies of the relationships, without the emotional stakes that those intricacies represent, the film would fail monumentally, becoming just another screed about the injustice of the times. Instead, it is a celebration of the heart with an indictment of racism, ageism, sexism, and all the others that is irrefutable.