Tate Taylor’s The Help: Jim Crow Is A Scavenger

Set in Mississippi in the Deep South during the 1960s. Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is a young twenty-something southern woman who returns from college set on being an author. But she ruins her friends’ lives, and Mississippi town for that matter, when she decides to conduct interviews with black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent white families. Skeeter decides to interview Aibileen (Viola Davis). Aibileen is her friend Elizabeth’s maid, and the concept of slavery is still evident in times like this, even if the iron hot brand and chains are nonexistent.

Skeeter’s consistent of interviewing black women in her town, tests the bonds of friendship with many of the people she’s known since childhood. Skeeter and Aibileen continue their partnership and subsequently more women come forward to tell their stories. They have a lot to say, that much is certain. On their journey, unlikely friendships are forged but not before the people of Jackson Mississippi have had their say when they’ve involuntarily been caught up in the changing times in a changing country amidst civil rights and its ilk.

Emma Stone as the rebellious and outspoken Skeeter Phelan
(The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

This is Jackson Mississippi, in 1963. A town where African-American maids raise white children and in twenty years, the child becomes the employer. A town where black women clean and cook for white families without even so much as a thank you. A town where the black maids are forced to use a separate toilet to their employer. Most of the black maids are treated shamefully and are consistently at the brunt of verbal abuse, including racist and derogatory insults from the white people of this town. One of the most insulting I found was that coloured people carry a disease. These maids raise white children but that child grows up to calling people like Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) “mama” when it’s these black maids who are the ones raising the kids from babes in arms. In the hands of the white employers, the kids are neglected. That doesn’t just make you a shameful parent. It makes you a shameful human being as well.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) is probably one and only member of “I’m twenty-something-years old and not married” club. She is the rebellious individual in Jackson despite going to college and getting educated. Being married and knocked up by twenty-five is the be all and end all in the South. Did I forget to mention that she’s a member of Junior League? The leader of Jackson’s society of women is Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). To call her a bitch would be putting it nicely. She’s a racist and prejudice housewife who believes in the greatness of segregation. She sees the African-American people as no better than animals, a different species. She campaigns for whites to install separate bathrooms for the help.

The racist and class obsessed Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) (The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

The racist and class obsessed Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard)
(The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

Aibileen (Davis) has raised many white children through the years. Her ancestors were maids in white homes and one would assume that before 1865, they would have been slaves as either house or field slaves in the South. Aibileen is best friends with Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and works for Elizabeth Leefolt (O’Reilly) a spineless woman who doesn’t like her daughter Mae Mobley and has somewhat neglected her, in the care of Aibileen. She is the child’s surrogate mother, teaching her what makes a good person in the allegory throughout the movie: “you is kind, you is smart, you is important”, depicting that no matter people say, don’t let anyone tell that you are less than what you are. She gives Mae Mobley the attention she deserves dishing out her own wisdom learnt from the hardships of her own life.

Much to the annoyance of her housewife friends, Skeeter gets a job and wants to pay her way through life. She has always wanted to be a journalist. Skeeter has a devout and racist mother played by the great Allison Janey (West Wing). When she learns that her mother may have fired Constantine (Cicely Tyson), she comes up with the notion to write a book called “The Help”. Constantine was the maid that raised her through childhood and into the start of womanhood. This book would show life in Jackson from the perspective of African-American maids; showing the good, the bad and the ugly as well as the outright comical like the whole “Shit In The Pie” fiasco with Minnie (Spencer) and Miss Hilly (Dallas Howard).

"You is kind. You is smart. You is important." - Aibileen (The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

Aibileen (Davis) and her surrogate daughter Mae Mobley
(The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

There is a great, yet harrowing scene where Hilly (Howard) catches Skeeter (Stone) reading a pamphlet of Jim Crow laws and then goes on to say that if the wrong person catches her reading that, she’d be in trouble. In the South, any white person reading things like that is going to find obstacles at every corner for not publicly following the southern racist ideologies. Skeeter doesn’t see the issue in being educated on the matter. I is one of the most important matters of the Civil Rights Movement as well as dating back to slavery days in the South. Writing the book is a risky project for Skeeter, given the rising aura of anxiety among blacks who are protesting in the Southern cities as well as the repercussions from the disciplies of Jim Crow’s ideologies.

Hilly and her ilk don’t bat an eyelid to the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in their town of Jackson whilst they hold a party to raise money for the “Poor Starving Children Africa.” The hypocrisy is alarming, that they treat black people in America in horrific ways but will hold a benefit to raise money for kids in Africa. Are the kids in Africa not black like their maids? That’s not even the cornerstone of the blatant hypocrisy in this movie. Skeeter (Stone), Aibileen (Davis) and Minny (Spencer) see that things like this force their hand into telling their stories. Writing this book is a brave and audacious attempt at combating racial prejudice and bigotry in their hometown.

Minnie (Octavia Spencer) & Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) (The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

Minnie (Octavia Spencer) & Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain)
(The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

I really enjoyed the performance of Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote. She’s as colour-blind as  Skeeter and it was good to see another character that hadn’t succumbed to the southern ideologies of racism, hate and white supremacy. Also, I enjoyed Sissy Spacek (Bloodline) as Hilly’s mother. I think you could add her to the list of colour-blind characters. I don’t recall a time where she shows us any acts of shere hatred for the African-American and she’s left in hysterics when Minny gifts Hilly a shit-infested pie as a form of retribution for all of Hilly’s ill feelings towards her. But I fear that as a young woman she may have been a racist. That’s the only reason I can think of which would explain why Miss Hilly is the way she is.

This film is based on the bestselling controversial novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett which shows the collaboration of three women of both colours, in order to do some good. Exposing racism in the South is risky business as we see throughout the book and the film. Furthermore, the film was written and directed by Tate Taylor as well as starring an all-star ensemble cast including Emma Stone (The Croods), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World). Octavia Spencer (Allegiant) delivers an Academy award-winning performance as Minnie.

Charlotte Phelan (Janney) & Skeeter Phelan (Stone) (The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

Charlotte Phelan (Janney) & Skeeter Phelan (Stone)
(The Help, Dreamworks Pictures)

Tate Taylor’s The Help is a very serious drama with plenty of amusing moment. Viewers will begin to sympathize with characters like Celia Foote, Skeeter and Aibileen, or hate characters like Hilly & the southern elite. Audiences will find themselves trying to work out what motivates these characters, their ideologies and beliefs so to speak. On paper, this looks like just another chick flicky drama but it’s bigger than that. It’s about the social, cultural and political context of the South. This is my favourite movie of all time with the book to screen translation being the stuff of legend. The film really does the book justice which can’t be said for a lot of “adaptations” in this time of remakes, reboots, franchise movies and lack of original stories. This is one of the greatest adaptations since 20th century classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Inspiring stuff.

Emma Stone as Skeeter is the modern Jean Louise, and this film is truly something special