The Help is an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s popular 2009 novel about the treatment of black house maids in 60s Mississippi by their white employers. This film reaches UK soil late, having already made waves (and a lot of money) in the US. It is good natured, well-acted and likable, in spite of its flaws.
The story begins where it spends most of its time: in Jackson, Mississippi, where newly graduated Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone) has just returned home. She returns to a deeply divided community, where white, social-climbing housewives lord it over their hardworking African American housemaids. Their racism is so ingrained that they scarcely seem able to distinguish between right and wrong, apparently believing that their treatment of the maids differs morally in some way to that of the violence carried out by white-hooded off-screen gangs. They are the “real racists” says one white character, missing the crashing irony of her own statement.
Eugenia returns with the intention of becoming a journalist, and winds up landing a small time job at a local paper writing a tiny column about housekeeping. That topic leads her to ask for tips from one of her friends’ maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis). Eugenia’s family and friends don’t so much object to her spending time with ‘the help’ but are rather shocked that she should want to, which is perhaps indicative of a deeper malady. Her aspiration to publish a book for an editor in New York – who tells her she needs a unique angle – turns her discussions with Aibileen (and others) into an exposé of the treatment of black maids. These discussions must be kept secret because the maids, though they are treated poorly, cannot afford to lose their jobs.
Perhaps Eugenia’s time away from the society in which she grew up has changed her; perhaps she is simply better-natured than her peers, but she possesses none of their inbuilt hostility. This may in part stem from the relationship she had with her own African American maid when she was growing up, a woman whom she genuinely loved, and who loved her in return. That woman is now missing, adding another layer to her personal desire to write the book, and indeed a further chapter to the book itself.
Stone’s likable performance is offset against a clutch of preening, vacuous socialites headed up by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who, amongst other things, is attempting to get a bill passed into law specifying that black maids must use separate bathrooms to those of their employers. Hilly is the primary antagonist of the piece, in some ways a heavy-handed pantomime villain, but effective nonetheless. Her nonchalant slurs are shocking in their own right – we’re not talking American History X here, but even within the film’s fairly cuddly walls (it remains reasonably chirpy throughout) it takes her ignorance seriously. In this case, the character is rather unsubtly allowed to hang herself with her own rope, but it works with the film’s tone. She’s a villain to be booed from the stalls, with almost no depth.
The maids are represented most prominently through the performances of Davis and Octavia Spencer, who plays good-natured (but strong-willed) Minny Jackson. A subplot sees Minny going to work for Jessica Chastain’s “white trash” housewife Celia Foote, who needs her maid to do the cooking and cleaning so her husband doesn’t think she’s useless. These scenes summon up a few smiles, and Chastain’s strong performance (both comic and melancholy) makes Celia an unlikely hero to cheer for. Davis and Spencer are excellent, papering over the film’s cracks and more saccharine beats with restrained dignity (in Davis’ case) and good comic timing (Spencer). Emma Stone leads the film with confidence, proving that she has a dramatic string to her bow. A number of performances in recent years – Zombieland, Easy A, and again here – have marked her out as a likable screen presence.
The Help is ultimately a slice of well-meaning, well-acted entertainment that will charm you long before it’s over. At times its moralising can be a little too black and white, and there are sentimental intervals which might put some people off. Indeed, the overall tone might alienate some people, because this is a generally family-friendly affair which isn’t interested in getting its hands too dirty. There are a couple of comic beats – including one running joke about a pie which feels not only out of place, but also unduly crucial to the story’s outcome – which miss the mark here and there, but not by enough to derail the film. By the time things are cosily wrapped up, you’ve spent two hours in endearing company and will likely have been sufficiently charmed.