Written by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer
Perspective matters when telling stories, especially when it focuses on the marginalization of a particular group. Too often in the effort to tell the stories about the pain of these individuals, the good intentions forget who should be the focus. The Help falls into this trap with the perspective to which it enters this film, but it makes just enough good adjustments in order to reconcile some of the grievances and make for a good film.
In 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, most of the affluent young white children were raised by Black maids. This creates a job market for Black women to help provide for their families. However, with rampant racism, their job conditions are horrid. Appalled at the sight of this all upon her return from college, Skeeter (Emma Stone) decides to challenge this and get the perspectives of these women for all to see.
It’s quite funny to think of the biggest issue ailing this film is the very thing it wishes to highlight. With this story being based on a fiction novel and not from historical events, the decision to make this from a white woman’s perspective feels incredibly misguided. It has the smell of the type of film people can watch thinking they are good people for simply not being as racist as the people depicted in the story. Instead, they can align with the good white person who they would have “definitely” been if alive during the time. Plenty of eye rolls to go around with it, but much like Glory, where the story redeems itself comes from actually giving the Black characters facing the marginalization a sense of agency.
With plenty of the focus being on the racist women, the film includes Minny (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen (Viola Davis). They serve as the perspective of the help as they have to battle with racism in their everyday lives and in the case of Minny, domestic abuse at home. They suffer the most in this film but Skeeter ultimately plays the hero in all of this, which gets at the main issue plaguing the film. Many conversations occur with Skeeter where she confronts overtly racist people like Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), which only further brings forward the white savior accusation involved with this story.
For all of the venom spewed in this film, it simply comes down to the simple idea of kindness and how it gets shared with others. The heroes of the day just have to treat others with a modicum of respect, which characters like Hilly evidently cannot do. It’s where you see the divide like in folks Skeeter and Celia (Jessica Chastain). A distinction that should not have to be made especially with the standard “southern hospitality” these towns have hung their hat since their existence. The harshness in the rhetoric allows simple moments of kindness to land like a warm hug in comparison, which is what makes the non-overtly racist characters good people.
Additionally, this battle between the maids and the women of the house plays on a specific dynamic of the domestic household. In an era where most women were expected to stay home, the maids could not afford to do that. Instead, the maids would spend more time caring for the children of their employers more than their own. With men forcibly dominating this era in controlling women’s agency, the fact this centers squarely on them feels enlightening. It allows the vile racism of the women of this era to be on full display and without the excuse of them just following their husband’s lead in the horrid things said and done. This story exposes this facade, which ultimately curries favor and adds a distinct element to the story’s ultimate success.
The biggest draw of this feature certainly comes from its incredible cast, which includes a bevy of heavy hitters to an almost overwhelming degree. The cast includes Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Aunjanue Ellis, Mary Steenburgen, and David Oyelowo. It should be illegal to have this much screen presence and talent in one singular cast and they all shine in their roles. Bryce Dallas Howard portrays the most overt racist in the tale almost too well in how she becomes hateable while on the other hand, you have Chastain portraying the social outcast Ceilia, whose experience shines a light on the judgment of other white women in the story. However, the stars are without a doubt, Spencer and Davis as they take the roles given to them and harness the pain and joy their lives provide them. They bring a degree of composure as well as comedy when necessary to make these characters real and not just figments of a white savior story.
Plagued with core issues, I cannot find myself fully loving this film but I must admit it does enough through the actors involved and remnants of the story shining through for me to enjoy. Watching this comes with a major caveat but it comes from a place of good intentions and shines a light on many issues faced by women in the South with the main focus lying in racism but also the internalized misogyny characters like Hilly puts upon her peers. Bright, colorful, and enjoyable for the most part, this film has plenty of heart.