“The Help” deals with some very important issues. It explores the lives of African American maids in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960’s – an important time during the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) is a fledgling writer/reporter who, although raised with the standard “white” culture and ideologies of the time, does not align herself with these ideas and she is an isolate in her peer group. Her fellow young women are all married, aspiring well-to-do women about town who hire maids, “do lunch”, produce children and attend charity functions, whereas Skeeter has a job and chats with the “coloured people”. Skeeter wants to fix the wrongs of her society, so she decides to tell the individual stories of the maids’ treatment by their white employers. But this means she will need to persuade the maids to talk openly with her. Aibileen (by Viola Davis) is the first one she approaches, but at first she declines as she doesn’t want to make trouble but then she decides that she does want to talk so she secretly starts to tell Skeeter her stories. Soon her friend and fellow domestic, Minny (by Octavia Spencer) also decides to talk, so together they tell Skeeter of their experiences. The women gradually produce a book which is successfully published using pseudonyms to save identification and the risk of trouble.
The drama of the time, the fear the maids held for their lives, livelihoods and wellbeing with regard to the reactions of their employers, the bigotry and the violence of the changing times are all dramatised well. However, the characters in the peer group of the developing “southern belle” women are not explored well.
Unfortunately, the movie plays more like a soap opera television mini-series, than a dramatic movie and this dilutes its impact to the point of trivializing the experiences of the maids and creating a farce. The characters are really caricatures and this turns the personal experiences into almost comedy. Also, the movie is very long – over 2.5 hours – I recommend you get the DVD and watch it over a couple of sessions. The life experiences are worth seeing (I am not sure whether this is based on a true story) and the story of peer group ostracision tugs your emotions, but the way the movie is made does not serve the important key issues in the best way it could have.