THE STORY – In 1960s Mississippi, Southern society girl Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns from college with dreams of being a writer. She turns her small town on its ear by choosing to interview the Black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent white families. Only Aibileen (Viola Davis), the housekeeper of Skeeter’s best friend, will talk at first. But as the pair continue the collaboration, more women decide to come forward, and as it turns out, they have quite a lot to say.
THE CAST – Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney & Sissy Spacek
THE TEAM – Tate Taylor (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 146 Minutes
When Tate Taylor’s “The Help” was released twelve years ago, it was celebrated and critiqued. Having won multiple SAG awards, including one for its entire cast, the film received four Oscar nominations; one for Best Picture, two for best supporting actress (Octavia Spencer; Jessica Chastain), and one for best actress (Viola Davis). Spencer won the Oscar for her portrayal of Minny Jackson. “The Help” has a brilliant ensemble, including the aforementioned: Emma Stone, Aunjanue Ellis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and the legendary Cicely Tyson. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name, “The Help” chronicles the relationships among Black maids and the white families they worked for in 1960s Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. In revisiting the film over a decade after its initial theatrical release, Taylor’s screenplay (co-written by Stockett) and direction are fairly questionable and inconsistent. The ensemble cast is incredibly engaging, and the film has moving moments throughout, but it also tends to gloss over the subject matter with a feel-good narrative structure.
“The Help” centers on Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a young woman who has moved back to her Jackson home after graduating college. An aspiring author, she lands a job writing for the domestic column of a local newspaper but is determined to write about more important subjects. After discovering that her childhood maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has disappeared, Skeeter reflects on the fact that Constantine raised her more than Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney). Skeeter then starts reaching out to local maids who have been taking care of white children. She eventually convinces two maids, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), to share their experiences of racism and discriminatory working conditions in the South. Using their involvement and with the participation of more maids, Skeeter decides to write a book from their perspectives. This secret project puts them all at risk of their employers finding out.
“The Help,” giving a central space to Emma Stone’s character, feels misguided and seemingly at odds with Taylor’s own direction. The story begins and ends with portraying the character of Aibileen; from the start, the viewer is introduced to her perspective as a maid taking care of young Mae Mobley (Eleanor Henry), daughter of Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly). Through the love that Aibileen has for Mae and vice versa comes one of if not the most recognized line in the film — “You is kind, you is smart, you is important” — a phrase Aibileen instills in Mae. Heartfelt moments such as this are scattered throughout the film, giving more insight into Aibileen’s character and her grief. But the screenplay maintains more of a one-dimensional approach, and her screen time becomes increasingly pushed to the sidelines of the story. Aibileen’s narration (used to bookend the film) is also an unfulfilled opportunity to really maintain her point of view with more significance.
The film’s screenplay is scattered from one character’s perspective to the next, inconsistent in how to tell a collection of intertwining stories, but also imbalanced in terms of which characters are given more complex, nuanced development. The second half of the film makes a prominent switch in focus to Skeeter’s perspective when her character is faced with the harmful decisions of her mother and learns the truth of Constantine’s absence, while Constantine herself is given a heartbreaking flashback scene that feels rushed. This film’s overall imbalance of perspective also invites inconsequential subplots, such as Skeeter’s former friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) setting her up to find a boyfriend.
Other subplots are given more resonance; such as Minny exacting revenge on former employer Hilly with a ‘homemade’ pie (cinematic gold), and after being barred from working in Hilly’s circle, finding a new employer in the very pure soul Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) just outside of town. Admittedly, Celia does not know how to cook and hires Minny to do all the cooking for her just before her husband, Johnny (Mike Vogel), gets home. The more forthcoming Celia and Minny are with each other, the more insight develops into Celia’s backstory and the tragic losses she experienced in life. Mainly thanks to the terrific performances by Chastain and Spencer, Celia and Minny have an engaging dynamic between the two of them.
While there are many issues with “The Help” and its narrative focus on Skeeter’s well-meaning journalist role to lead the story, the ensemble cast delivers excellent work that elevates this film, particularly the writing. Three years after a phenomenal turn in 2008’s “Doubt,” in which she became the instant MVP with a single scene, “The Help” marked Viola Davis’ second Oscar nomination and first lead role in a studio film. Davis commands the screen with gravitas and incredible screen presence. Her character’s final scene with Hilly, to name one of many standout acting moments from Davis in the film, is among some of the greatest acting of the past decade.
The film features charming work by Jessica Chastain in a banner year (between this film and plenty of others that defined her breakthrough career moment). Chastain perfects a remarkable balance of naiveté and kindness. Octavia Spencer also gives a wonderful performance, delivers one of the film’s most memorable scenes, and shines in her character’s more contemplative moments. Bryce Dallas Howard does a fantastic job playing a person you absolutely loathe with every fiber of being. Aunjanue Ellis also has a standout scene as the Holbrooks’ maid, Yule Mae Davis, asking Hilly for a loan so that she can send both her sons to school. It’s a brief but brilliant performance, and Ellis’ facial expressions alone speak volumes. Since “The Help’s” 2011 release, five actresses in the cast have each won an Oscar, Chastain being the latest for 2021’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” The same year Chastain won, Ellis became the sixth cast member of “The Help” (since its release) to be nominated for an Oscar (for 2021’s “King Richard“). The talent of this ensemble continues to shine, and Ellis sounds to have exciting years ahead with projects such as “The Color Purple” and “Caste.”
“The Help” is more or less an engaging film to watch, given the ensemble cast, who each bring heartfelt emotion to their performances. In revisiting the film after several years, their work withstands and reverberates. Though however well-intentioned, Tate Taylor’s directorial effort and adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel does not sit well in its entirety. There are missed opportunities in not centering Davis’ character to a greater extent, for instance, instead of focusing on Skeeter’s perspective. While the narrative includes Black characters’ perspectives, the writing holds them at a distance, not providing more in-depth character development overall.