Since its release, The Help has generated debate, with detractors arguing against the portrayal of Skeeter (Emma Stone), a white savior, inspiring otherwise helpless black women to stand up for themselves. Advocates say the movie provides touching insight into the lives of the highly marginalized.
Skeeter, an aspiring writer who wants to tell the maids’ stories, is puzzlingly enlightened about racial issues in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. She’s a graduate of Ole Miss, hardly a bastion of liberal ideals. Historically, this university had—just a year prior to the setting of the novel the film is based on—admitted its first black student under pressure from the federal government. It’s the kind of conflict that should give Skeeter motivation to fight discrimination, but this is absent from both the novel and the movie: there’s little display of her evolution of thought.
A second kind of soul—community outcast and “white trash” trophy wife, Miss Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain)—inexplicably and consistently forgets the racial boundaries that divide her from her maid, Minnie (Octavia Spencer). In contrast, the villainous Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) has only a single, petty, dimension.
Some reviewers have complained that the competitive girl-squabbles in the story give The Help a Real Housewives of Jackson Mississippi feel. But if the movie overshot heartwarming and landed in the territory of trivializing, the emotionally intuitive performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer rescue it. Davis plays Aibileen Clark, a woman of grace and quiet dignity in suffering, who loves her charge, Mae Mobley, more than the child’s mother. Minnie Jackson, her best friend, is a tenacious, outspoken woman who is fiercely loyal. They are not quivering creatures in need of rescue, but strong, compassionate women who lean on each other for support.
Both women are motivated to tell their stories to Skeeter because of past tragedy. Aibileen’s change of attitude, and her growing dissatisfaction with being a second-class citizen, is motivated by the past death of her son. Losing hope for his future ignites a defiant spark. In this sense, Skeeter is not Aibileen’s rescuer—she is only a convenient conduit for the fight that has been building for years.
The Help is not groundbreaking. Skeeter’s collection of stories may be an exposé, but the film is not. Luckily, it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a microcosm: focusing on a few tender—and sometimes complex—relationships rather than the whole civil rights struggle.