helpOn The Surface

 The Help

Stars: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen, Brian Kerwin, Ahna O’Reilley, Chris Lowell  and Leslie Jordan
Director/Scriptwriter: Tate Taylor from the novel by Kathryn Stockett
Walt Disney Films
Rating: PG 13 for themed material and violence
Running Length: Two Hours
The best way I can describe the storyline in The Help is with an experience I had as a child in the Deep South. My parents and I visited friends and I was confused as to which rest room to use. To me, “Black Only” meant black clothes only. “White Only” was white clothing only, so what room do I enter---I was wearing pink? The idea of Separate But Equal was in full force in Mississippi in the 1960’s and author Kathryn Stockett writes the story of black maids who tell about their lives to a white writer. Their experiences show that not only did the maids have courage, but stamina.
Aibileen (Viola Davis) is the narrator and a maid. She tells the story of Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young white girl who is home from college and gets a job as an advice columnist for the local newspaper in Jackson, Miss. The editor (Leslie Jordan) steals his scenes. Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney) is recovering from ill health and looking for a maid since their former one, Constantine, who raised Skeeter, (played by Cicely Tyson) moved away suddenly. Skeeter’s home town friends, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) are socialites and think Skeeter just may be a tad beneath them as she isn't married yet. Hilly also wants to get a law passed that each household employing a maid should have a separate bathroom for that maid. Hovering on the outskirts is newcomer Celia (Jessica Chastain), known as “trailer trash” for her flashy clothes and because she married a wealthy man from the town. Everyone is trying to get a date for Skeeter and she finally gives in to date Stuart (Chris Lowell.) He makes fun of her newspaper work---and in essence---in Skeeter, too, as a modern woman. Skeeter decides on a writing project---to interview Jackson maids as to their experiences. Her New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) balks at first, then becomes interested as the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum. The interviews are in strict secrecy and soon, more maids come forward until this assignment becomes a book. The story goes on with several sub-plots including where is Constantine? Why can't Minnie (Octavia Spencer) hold a job and where does she work now, plus the close friendship between Hilly and Elizabeth and how it is effecting Aibileen and the relationship between Skeeter and her own mother. It is a lot to put into a film, but it does come together.
The Help takes you back to the 1960’s complete with no air-conditioning, dial phones, white gloves, formal teas, polishing the silver and the maid having their own bathroom. There is also rudeness, plus---behind gloved hands and closed doors---plenty of gossip to go around, and if it isn't exactly true, so much the better. Instead of calling a duel to settle a score---as men would---the women have their own ways and Lucretia Borgia could have taken lessons here. Oh, yes, there are men in the film, though for a pausing moment and then on to the latest gossip item.
The cast is well chosen and although Oscar buzz is beginning at this early stage, it is difficult to single out a particular performance. Emma Stone as Skeeter, is distracting, beginning with her hair-do which is from Gone With The Wind and it was about half-way through the film before I was comfortable with her performance. Octavia Spencer plays Minnie, the defiant maid with defiance, “Here I am, look at me…” Viola Davis does a demure Aibileen whose sad face registers emotion for fleeting moments. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly is someone you would like to toss water at and Howard plays the character a bit too controlled. Jessica Chastain out does Minnie in the “Here I am…” department in her depiction of someone who pulled herself up from a poor life, has a heart of gold, but doesn't know how to temper her personality. Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s Mother, is supposed to be a step away from dementia, but Sissy lets it all out when it comes to confrontation. You will remember these characters.
In the background, are the riots, murders, and fears of that time period. The color of your skin determined your social status. You sat at the back of the bus, deferred to white people, raised white children and, on the surface, was a member of the household. On the surface, that is, because no one cared about your life after work and, working overtime, well that was expected. Being a maid was a way of life and the person was passed on from generation to generation like a tablecloth. When the Civil Rights Movement was being heard in the South, change affected everyone and some did not want to let go. I did not read the novel, The Help, but in the film, novel author Kathryn Stockett has told that story.
Copyright 2011 Marie Asner