The Academy Awards are still months away, but there is a feeling of Oscars in the air thanks to the strong female cast in the superbly acted movie The Help. Set in racially charged Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, the story, based on the book of the same name, peels back the layers of prejudice and social injustice as carefully as Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer) prepares an onion.
Minnie, touted for her exceptional cooking skills, is the maid of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Jackson’s own ironfisted leader of the Mean Girls. She insists the hired help doesn’t forget their place in Southern society and she won’t shy away from ruining reputations and lives if that’s what it takes to maintain the status quo.
Hilly’s friend Skeeter (Emma Stone), however, feels differently about the social mores of her time. Unlike Hilly, Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) and Jolene (Anna Camp) who stayed close to home, married young and started having babies for the maids to raise, Skeeter spent four years at Ole Miss. Now a graduate of journalism, she wants to tackle difficult topics. But in the meantime, she’s stuck writing a cleaning column for the local paper.
It’s while getting advice for her column from Elizabeth’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) that Skeeter suddenly pounces upon an idea for her first book—an exposé of Southern life from the perspective of the maids. Yet convincing the women to talk, even anonymously, proves difficult. With the Jim Crow laws still in effect, Aibileen and the others know their very lives are in danger for speaking out against their employers.
What’s remarkable about this script is its refusal to take a merely black and white view of the time. The portrayed society reeks with hierarchies based on race, social standing, age and the ability to make others cower. Breaking down the ingrained pecking order requires courage on the part of many.
While Davis, Stone, Howard and Spencer all offer extraordinary performances the secondary characters are equally absorbing. Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s guilt and cancer-ridden mother. Cicely Tyson appears as the gentle black woman who raised the young journalist. Jessica Chastain stars as a spurned outcast who yearns to fit in with the other white women. And Sissy Spacek puts in an incredible showing as the slightly addled, disposed matriarch of Hilly’s family. Together these women, under the direction of Tate Taylor, produce a riveting piece that unfolds with humor, tears and a generous helping of sass—thanks mostly to the outspoken Minnie who finds it impossible to follow her own advice about keeping one’s mouth shut on the job.
With so many female actors, some might incorrectly label this as a chick flick. But the drama is so much more. While frequent profanities may discourage parents from taking their children to this film, the beautiful sets, creative directing and strong character development all put The Help solidly in the running for a coveted statuette.
Content Details: Beyond the Movie Ratings...
Violence: Depictions of racial injustices are shown. A woman is beaten with a police baton (off screen). The sounds of an abusive argument are heard. A woman chops off the head of a chicken (off screen). A woman spanks a child. A tainted food product is fed to a character. Characters and TV broadcasts discuss the killing of a Black man and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The bloody aftermath of a miscarriage is portrayed.
Sexual Content: A mother questions her daughter’s sexual orientation. Characters talk about an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and miscarriages. Couples kiss briefly.
Language: The script contains frequent profanities, scatological slang, terms of Deity and the use of racial slurs within a historical context.
Alcohol / Drug Use: In this period film, characters smoke frequently. Drinks are served in social settings. At least two characters are portrayed as drunk, including one woman who drives under the influence.
Discussion Ideas: Talk About the Movie...
Who reigns in this social arena? Who is marginalized? What societal pressures do the characters experience? Why are these conventions so strong? Who, besides the maids, are lower in the pecking order?
How do rumors and lies hurt the reputation of others in this story? Why is it so difficult for people to prove their innocence?
How are wigs used to depict the two-faced nature of this society? Are there other objects that take on symbolic meanings in this story?
What is ironic about the women’s fundraiser for starving children in Africa? Is it sometimes easier to see problems in other parts of the world rather than in our own community?
Another white girl befriends some African-American women in The Secret Life of Bees. A lawyer risks stirring up the anger of his community when he agrees to defend a black man in To Kill a Mockingbird. The color barrier affects the working relationship of a doctor and his research assistant in Something the Lord Made.
Home Video Notes
Home Video Notes: The Help
Release Date: 6 December 2011
The Help releases to home video on December 6, 2011, in a 2 Disc (DVD and Blu-ray) or 3 Disc (Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy) set. Both packages offer:
- Deleted scenes (introduced by director Tate Taylor): A Senator’s Son, Keep On Walkin’, Humiliated, A Book About Jackson and Johnny’s Home.
- Music Video: The Living Proof (by Mary J. Blige)
- The Making of The Help
- In Their Own Words: A Tribute To The Maids Of Mississippi