The Help – Movie Review

Based on the best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett (find my review of the book here), The Help is a drama about three Southern American women in their struggle for racial equality in Jackson, Mississippi.

Emma Stone stars as Eugena “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent college graduate going back home, who wants to break out of the mold society has limited her in. She’s an aspiring writer who happens to live during the era of Civil Rights Movements. Viola Davis stars as Aibileen, a maid working for a Mrs. Elizabeth, her main job being taking care of Elizabeth’s little girl, Mae Mobley, whose mother doesn’t care about. Octavia Spencer stars as Minnie, a snarky maid who literally can’t keep her mouth shut but whose cooking is so superb that her white employers tend to turn a blind eye to her blabbing.

After a proposal by Skeeter’s friend, Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), to have separate bathrooms for the colored help, the idea in Skeeter’s mind of the necessity of change begins to blossom, especially after it gets fueled by an enthusiastic New York publisher who wants her to write. So Skeeter sets to write a story about the help in Jackson. Her first two maids to go on board? Minnie and Aibileen, who will tell Skeeter their deepest and darkest stories – stories they’ve hidden for such a long time they’ve become permanent scars in their souls. Aibileen tells her about all the little kids she raised, about how Elizabeth is an unfit mother, about how she doesn’t treat Mae Mobley like a real mother should. Minnie, who also happens to be Miss Hilly’s former maid, tells Skeeter about the “horrible awful thing” she did, which involves a special ingredient in a pie, to which you will have heartfelt laughs. But it is their struggle as a community that will bring the other maids on board – the chance to tell their side of the story, to be liberated – at least on paper – and to somehow seek salvation.

The performances in the movie are top notch. Starting with Emma Stone, she is one of our generation’s most promising actresses. After a great performance in Easy A and being the best of the actors in Crazy Stupid Love, she is back here not to steal the show but to offer an emotionally subtle performance that is exactly how the character she portrays is: not flamboyant but calm and reserved. Stone’s most emotional scenes come when she remembers her maid Constantine and discovers the story of how Constantine left them and it is in those scenes that she truly shines.

Viola Davis’ performance is being touted by critics everywhere as a tour de force performance. And it truly is. There’s one scene in particular, when she tells the story of how her son dies, where she plays on your emotional strings like a banjo in a country song. But her performance throughout is always nuanced, always great and always emotive. Probably the movie’s highlight scene, its ending, is purely her work. Davis is truly captivating. Whenever she focuses her eyes on another character in The Help, you almost see her gaze into that character’s soul. She is penetrating, invasive… and you welcome it with open arms.

Octavia Spencer is equally great as Minnie. She brings humor to the movie. It may be dark humor sometimes – literally – but it will still get you to feel happy that even amid all the horrible things these people had to go through, there’s still room for happiness in their lives. She gives hope to the other characters in the book and to you, as a viewer, that there could be a better tomorrow for them. She portrays Minnie’s strength subtly. She comes with a bruised eye to work and acts as if this wasn’t caused by her alcoholic husband. But deep down, below the strong outside of Spencer’s character, you can feel the volcano of hurt waiting to erupt.

The movie’s director, Tate Taylor, is Kathryn Stockett’s best friend since childhood. This deep understanding between such two friends has helped him bring her book to screen while entirely preserving the message she was trying to get across on page. While there are many differences between book and movie, some of which I had wished to be included in the movie, the screenplay Taylor wrote still works as a great adaptation, one of the better ones for a book to movie adaptation.

The Help is also a stunning movie visually. And even though there’s obviously no visual effect work here, this means recognition should be given to the cinematography crew that worked on it, most notably Stephen Goldblatt, whose previous works include Julie & Julia, Charlie Wilson’s War. etc…

If there’s anything to take out of The Help it’s that everyone is a victim – even those white socialite women. Yes, they are the victim of their ignorance, of their repressed memories of the black women that brought them up. The black women are victims of being at the wrong time. The little white girls are victims of negligent mothers.

At the end of the day, The Help can be summed up by its most emotional scene, which also happens to be its conclusion. As Aibileen leaves the house of her employer, Elizabeth, she sits by Mae Mobley and asks her to repeat what Aibileen has been teaching her every day. Mae Mobley stares into Aibileen’s deep, dark eyes and repeats: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”


The Help (Book Review) – Kathryn Stockett

For the movie review, click here.

Born in Jackson, Mississippi and raised at the hands of a maid, Kathryn Stockett knows firsthand how it was to be a “superior” white person in the American South in the 1960s. The black maids tend to the white children, watch those children grow up and eventually become their bosses.

So it is with that sort of autobiographical flair that Stockett approaches her debut novel: The Help. No, the book is not an autobiography but it feels very real because it draws upon life-like elements and historical events to drive its plot. Eugena “Skeeter” Phelan is a fresh college graduate going home to Jackson in 1962 after a failed attempt at securing a job with important New York publishers. As she settles in the hierarchal routine of her hometown, Skeeter starts to realize that she doesn’t really belong in the bridge circles her friends have every week or their banquets. She’s also not as interested in the mundane elements of their lives that they love to share so much. So as Skeeter looks upon her friend’s maid, Aibileen, she asks her if she wished things were different. Aibileen cannot reply. But in a world where the white people of Jackson were trying to pass a regulation whereby colored individuals would have a different bathroom just because “they” carry different germs that do not go well with them while folks, Aibeleen has every reason to want change.

It is to the backdrop of racial segregation, fear, the KKK and white supremacists, mostly in the form of Skeeter’s friend, miss Hilly, that three women: Skeeter, Aibileen and a third maid, Minny, embark on an extraordinary quest that is really ordinary in all of its details: write a book about the stories of the maid of Jackson, a book that talks about the help including all of the bad, the ugly and the beautiful moments they have lived with their white employers.

The Help is told in three main parts, divided according to each character. The three parts intertwine as the story progresses but they are as distinct as they can be mostly due to the drastically different natures of the characters outlining and driving each part. Even the english language employed by Stockett is drastically different for each part: Aibileen’s part is mostly slang, Skeeter is proper English and Minnie finds a middle ground between them.

What is common to the three parts, however, is that all three characters driving them jump off the page due to their complex structure, warmth and exquisite character. Aibileen is the mother who cares about her employer’s little girl, Mae Mobley, as much as she cared about her son. Minnie is the angry, scrappy character who can’t stand silent to her employers berating her, who can’t stand by as Miss Hilly accuses her of being a thief. Skeeter is the woman wanting change in a time when people like her even existing is frowned upon, in a time where even the people she was trying to help are wary of her.

All of this is exposed in Stockett’s The Help in three-dimensional glory.

What leaves you as you finish The Help is a sense of happiness. It is a book about tormented lives seeking emancipation from the bonds of society. It is a book that gets you to laugh at points and sit in reflection at your own life at other points, especially as we, the Lebanese, have many of the incidences taking place in this book happening in own households with our “help”.

The Help, at the end of the day, is a book about empowerment. Be it the white woman empowering the black women to rise beyond their predicaments or Aibileen empowering Mae Mobley to be more than what her mother tells her: “Mae Mobley is kind. Mae Mobley is smart. Mae Mobley is important.”

The Help is kind. The Help is smart. The Help is important.