In 1962, after four years away in college, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (the versatile Emma Watson) returns to Jackson, Mississippi, and finds herself a stranger among her old friends. She keeps her naturally frizzy hair and dreams of working as a writer instead of snaring a husband.
She’s pressured to complete a secret writing project, as her New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) says, “before this civil rights thing blows over.” Eugenia intends to do something no one’s done before—capture true-life stories of “the help,” black maids who work for white families. She starts her first interview with Abilene (Viola Davis), her friend’s maid.
“What is your occupation?” she asks Abilene. “House maid,” replies Abilene.
“What was your mother?” “A house maid.”
“What was your grandmother?” “A house slave.”
Eugenia gasps, shocked to realize how close and personal are the roots of slavery. As her project expands to publication of a book, she discovers how deep Americans must go to dig out those roots.
From the opening frame through all 137 of its minutes, I loved The Help. Every scene was an emotional ride, from heart-filled to humor to heartbreak and back again. All the performances, especially the incredibly emotive Viola Davis as the maid Abilene, were so real I felt hypnotized. I haven’t been so touched by a film in many years.
Controversy has lambasted The Help. Critics say it’s too white, or not black enough; it’s not historically realistic, it ignores the big picture of racial conflict. I reply that The Help is not a documentary or a scholarly tome. It’s a movie. Its purpose is to entertain and it did that masterfully. If a movie can also bring awareness to a hidden sliver of history and make some of us think about things we’d never thought of before, that’s frosting on the cake.
The Help is quite an accomplishment for one small movie, especially one written and directed by a newcomer no one ever heard of. It turns out that Tate Taylor got this gig because he’s a close friend of Kathryn Stockett, author of the novel the film is based on.
In addition to cooking and cleaning full-time, many black maids are also nannies, taking care of white children as if they were their own. Abilene, who grieves the loss of her son in a factory accident, raised 17 children belonging to other women. Her current charge is pudgy little Mae Mobley, whose mother (chilly Anha O’Reilly) neglects her.
Every day Abilene reminds the child, “You is smart, you is kind, and you is important” and the little girl beams. Eugenia herself was raised by her beloved black nanny, Constantine (the seraphic Cicely Tyson). The old woman has disappeared and Eugenia’s mother (Allison Janney) won’t reveal what happened. When Eugenia finally finds out, you want to weep with her.
The leader of the women’s club is Hilly Holbrook (a wonderfully brittle Bryce Dallas Howard), who is convinced the city must pass an ordinance requiring white homeowners to add black-only bathrooms so the help doesn’t use the same facilities the white people do. In a wickedly hilarious scene, Hilly gets her comeuppance in an unforgettable bathroom way.
Black people aren’t the only objects of Hilly’s toxic gaze. Poor Celia Foote (the luminescent Julia Chastain) is a country girl who’s forever going to be an outsider begging to come in. Celia’s salvation comes in the form of her new maid Minny (the amazingly expressive Octavia Spencer), who happens to be the best cook in the county. Another outcast is Hilly’s doddering mother (a sparky Cissy Spacek), who’s not as feeble-minded as her daughter thinks.
Balancing the film’s heart and humor, is plenty of heartbreak—betrayal, brutal husbands, and the murder of black civil rights leader Medgar Evers. But when the lights go out on The Help, the most lasting image is the love between a black woman and a little white girl, who will remember all her life the blessing that “You is important.”