There’s a particularly powerful moment in The Help, the film about black maids and the white women they work for, set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. On her way home from work, the maid Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) learns from the bus driver that civil-rights activist Medgar Evers has been shot. The driver tells the black folks to get off the bus amidst distant sounds of angry voices and blaring sirens. As she walks home this gentle, kindly, poised woman is suddenly gripped with a blinding fear and panic. She begins to run, trips and falls, bloodying herself, and runs again into the safety of a friend’s home. It’s one of the few times in this mostly comical film where the danger of being black in the ’60s South is clearly palpable. But The Help has plenty of danger just beneath the surface of its prevalent humor. It’s a film that appears much lighter than it actually is.
Returning home from college, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) finds her socialite friends ensconced in the traditional roles of Southern womanhood: married with children that are raised by “the help,” doing weekly bridge-club parties and raising money for the poor children of Africa. They’re also raising support for a state law requiring an outside-the-home toilet for black maids that clean white folks’ houses. Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the unabashed leader of this pack of racists, has a wonderfully tyrannical incident with her maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) over the unsanctioned use of her home’s toilet.
But Skeeter wants a career. And after getting a job at the local paper writing a column about house cleaning, Skeeter naively decides to write a book about what it’s like to be a black maid in Mississippi. Her naivete is quickly grounded by Aibileen’s fear as the two become complicit in the writing of the book, eventually convincing others to tell their stories despite the potential consequences. Skeeter’s ignorance of the mistreatment toward the town’s black citizens leads to an epiphany of understanding that comes improbably quick, especially considering that she was practically raised by the help herself. It’s one of many liberties taken by the film to move the story along. It is “just a story” in spite of its mostly accurate historical context.
Stone again shows the comedic chops that made films like Easy A much better than they deserved to be. But she can do the serious stuff, too, obviously pumped by an amazing ensemble cast in Davis, Spencer and Howard. In addition, Jessica Chastain gives an adequately over-the-top portrayal of the Marilyn Monroe-like Celia, who is shunned by Hilly and her friends. And Sissy Spacek adds cantankerous, familial spice as Hilly’s aging mother.
Like the book, the film doesn’t come close to being any kind of analysis of Southern segregation and the Civil Rights movement. It isn’t To Kill A Mockingbird. It isn’t Mississippi Burning, either. But in the comical portrayal of Hilly, the obvious villain of The Help, there is terror. The film manages to retain a tension that’s often rewarded with a humorous release. It may sometimes be a little too clean around the edges, but don’t be fooled by the light.