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Film Review – THE HELP

Outlet: Mr VIDEO, Nelson Mandela Avenue
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Tate Taylor (screenplay); Kathryn Stockett (novel)
Players: Viola Davis; Chris Lowell; Jessica Chastain; Mary Steenburgen; Emma Stone; Cicely Tyson; Bryce Dallas Howard; Sissy Spacek; Alison Janney; Octavia Spencer
Genre: drama
Rating: ***½

Aihileen Clark (Davis) faces the camera, somewhat truculently, and tells her story: her grandmother was a house slave, her mother was a maid, so she understood perfectly that her destiny in life was to be a maid. She states emphatically and without hesitation that she has raised 17 children – all white babies, while her child was raised by someone else. ‘How did that feel?’ asks interviewer Skeeter Phelan (Stone), a young aspiring journalist from Jackson in the Deep South, a young girl who is not in the mould of southern belles: no boyfriend, no palatial plantation, and no husband in sight.
Set in the sixties, the film reeks of racism before Martin Luther King and the Black Consciousness movement. The film outlines domestic employment from the domestics’ point of view. Prior to Skeeter’s somewhat mad scheme to become noticed in New York by Harper Magazine, one by one the maids of Jackson are coerced and cajoled into confessing their life experiences to Skeeter, which eventually becomes encapsulated into a book entitled, ‘The Help’.
It is not really the plotline which keeps a viewer riveted in this film: it is the consciousness and sense of identity which develops because of the relationships between employer and employee when these are coloured, in a literal sense, by skin colour. Initially, the maids are fearful of reprisals and want to keep their stories to themselves but, one by one, they are driven by anger, resentment, or desperation at the unfair treatment meted out to them and their friends.
The road to Skeeter’s journalistic success is a long and rocky one: the Harpers’ editor, Elaine Stein, is not satisfied with the stories of a couple of maids; she wants a deluge of maids, or at least a dozen – before she will print more. When the Phelan maid is arrested for trying to pawn a ring which seems too big and opulent to be hers, the maids rally to the banner of honesty and truthful revelation, rather than skunk around Jackson in silent resignation. As Skeeter’s mother tells her ‘Courage sometimes skips a generation; thank you for bringing it back to my family’.
The iron fist of conformity does not only grapple with racial relationships in the southern states; it applies equally to the stereotypes of acceptability within the white communities. Girls were expected to be pert and pouty, not too bright, immaculately coiffed and dressed, and forever on the lookout for ideal husband material. Thereafter they were home keepers and custodians of the local social mores: organising the African Child Benevolence Ball, playing bridge, and having children. The children were mostly abandoned to the tender cares of a nanny, the ‘Help’. Their husbands were remote playboy figures who barely make an appearance in the film, either to show their humanity or to indicate their real places in society at that time. Stuart (Lowell), who is Skeeter’s boyfriend for a while, works on an oil rig, and somehow does not seem to fit the mould either.
Skeeter strikes me as her own worst enemy – far too perky, rather than pert, and too arrogant to conceal her intelligence. At one point, when no-one has invited her to a dance and she is sniffing disconsolately under a weeping willow tree, the nanny who has reared her, Constantine (Tyson), comes to read the riot act and to impart homespun philosophies about confidence and chutzpah as the way forward. It is this advice which Skeeter takes seriously: she confesses that Constantine was, in reality, her maternal mentor and guide, while her biological mother played hostess to clubs, bridge game, and social functions.
Aihileen Clark performs the Constantine stereotype in the film. Her little female charge whispers in her ear that she is the ‘real mommy’ while hugging her fiercely. At the end of the film the little girl, in tears, bangs on the window pane and calls for her in vain, as Aihileen walks down the road, having been fired by the girl’s mother.
An interesting sub-plot concerns Celia Foote, a blonde bimbo who seems to have ‘caught’ one of Jackson’s personable males, Johnny Foote (Vogel). She is frozen out of acceptable ‘society’ by Hilly Holbrook, the acknowledged leader of female society. As one character comments, ‘When Ms Hilly
was the first to have a baby, everyone at bridge had to have one too.’ Celia Foote (Chastain), although perhaps not a product of polite southern society, turns out to have more humanity in her little finger than the bridge girls have aces up their sleeves. Minny Jackson (Spencer), a cook with a legendary reputation, is fired and ‘blackballed’ by her erstwhile employer, the redoubtable Holbrook. Eventually, she is hired by  Foote, and the pair of them make a winning combination, each helpful and supportive of the other; it is a relationship governed by mutual respect and sensitivity for the feelings of the other, not the imposition of pride and privilege which seemed to be the norm. It is a very moving moment when Celia’s husband Johnny pulls out a dining room chair for Minny to sit and eat with the couple to a gourmet meal prepared by his wife.
Turbulent times of black consciousness are stirring gently in the background of this story but do not really impact upon the personal relationships which have been forged by centuries of racial divide and superiority. Whites are not really displayed sympathetically in this film. Maids are fired with impunity, sometimes at whim, sometimes because of social coercion, and sometimes…just because.
Although there are stereotypes that can resonate in Africa, there are important differences, too. When Skeeter is studying the legality of interviewing domestic workers for their stories, she consults a book entitled, ‘The Laws of Missississipi, governing the conduct of non-whites and other minorities’. Holbrook drafts a document entitled ‘The Home-help Sanitation Initiative’ in which she hopes that separate toilet facilities for domestic workers will pass into law; she asks Minny, her cook, whether she is happy with her new bathroom and mutters as an addendum, ‘Separate but equal’, The bridge ladies insensitively gossip openly in front of their employees about the sanitary risk of sharing facilities.
When Skeeter obtains a daily column on cleaning advice at The Jackson Journal, it is Aihileen who provides the advice – on how to peel onions without crying, for example. When Aihileen’s son died as a result of a job-related accident and was dumped carelessly at the ‘Coloured’ Hospital, she states in a voiceover that ‘I wasn’t so accepting anymore.’ Her son had been brought up by someone else while she whispered in little white ears to be ‘kind, smart, and important’. She states, somewhat bitterly that for people like Skeeter, ‘It was just another day of bridge.’ There are lessons for all of us in this film – but nothing to do with playing a game of ‘No Trumps’.

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