Distributor: Dreamworks (Disney)
Release Date: September 1, 2011
The Help is an eerily familiar film. Not because civil rights and America’s southern states are recognizable territory for moviegoers, but because racism is a far more human condition than we’d like to admit. But watching three women overcome it one day at a time in their own small town context reminds us that evil only has as much power as we give it.
The Help frames a picture of the privileged lives of white women living in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi and the Negro maids who make their relaxed existence possible. Emma Stone plays Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a southern belle returning from Mississippi University who desperately wants to become a journalist. While investigating cleaning tips for a weekly column, she comes into close contact with Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a ‘coloured’ domestic who’s been raising white children for most of her life. Skeeter’s town is dominated by racial prejudice and presided over by her mean-spirited school friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Skeeter wonders what Aibileen and her fellow maids really think of the world they daily maintain. She persuades the maid and her feisty friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) to help her write a book on their reflections even as Jackson descends into America’s most turbulent decade.
Everywhere I looked in The Help I saw the small town I grew up in reflected back at me. The 60’s supermarket looked like our local grocer; the furniture could have come from my grandmother’s house. The same could be said for the best and worst that came from the characters’ mouths. My mother was full of the same home-spun wisdom the negro nanny Constantine offered a growing Skeeter:
“Every day you have to make a decision: am I going to believe the bad things that people say about me?”
and respected members of the community reflected Hilly’s prejudices in their own opinions about ethnic groups or minorities. In The Help Hilly is determined to promote a ‘Home Sanitation Bill’ with the Mississippi governor that will require private homes to install separate toilets for coloured people. She tells Skeeter,
“It’s just plain dangerous. They carry different diseases to us. You ought not to joke about the colour situation – I will do anything to protect my children.”
It sounds ludicrous because the audience is well aware Hilly is far more concerned about the status quo than her children. But Hilly’s conviction made me wonder what pseudo-wisdom still managed to cloak prejudices today? Though it’s a story about the past, The Help has an eye on the present as well, offering viewers cleaning tips for the soul.
Take the frequently expressed idea that religion causes conflict. In The Help the motivation for the maids’ telling their stories rises not from their ‘right’ to speak but their recognition that justice is something God requires us to work towards. Aibilene tells Skeeter it was God who convinced her to take part. She’s reflecting on the words of her black minister:
“Moses said he couldn’t speak [but] courage [is] about overcoming fear and daring to do what is right for your fellow man. God commands, compels us to love. Love, as exemplified by our Lord Jesus Christ, is to put yourself in harm’s way for the sake of your fellow man.”
For her, practically showing ‘God’s love’ meant being prepared to share what she knew about life:
“God says we need to love our enemies. It’s hard to do. But it can begin by telling the truth.”
And so the maids try to help their white world understand truths that might enrage them, but they desperately need to hear. In the end Aibilene’s words amount to a disturbing conviction for Hilly that God will one day have something to say about her behaviour.
The Help is a beautifully crafted tale that’s certain to find its place alongside of moving classics like Steel Magnolias and The Hours. But it’s got more to offer than feminine wisdom and a feel-good story. It stands as a testimony to a post-religious world that God is not the problem. To quote G.K.Chesterton,
“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”