Taylor does nothing to try to honor the real women whose lives are reflected in the film. Instead, he sketches each maid as nothing more than one side of the “Mammy” character.
The Help is based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett that focuses on one of the darkest times in our country’s history. Leading up to and during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Southern families routinely employed black maids in their homes. Although these women were indispensible to the household (they raised the children, cooked the meals, and cleaned the house), they were treated only slightly better than slaves and paid very little. The fact that this was a common practice is a blight on America’s history.
The film version of The Help, however, is a light-hearted, laugh-out-loud comedy about these zany maids and the crazy high jinks they get themselves into. Writer/director Tate Taylor and anyone involved in the production, especially the cast, should be ashamed of themselves for this offensive portrayal of an incredibly serious subject.
The film takes place in Jackson, Mississippi and follows Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) as she returns from college at Ole Miss. All of her childhood girlfriends have gotten married and had children, so they look at her like she’s crazy when she says she’s gotten a job at a newspaper. The leader of the town’s uptight girls’ club is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the embodiment of the Southern mindset in the late ‘60s. Skeeter has never been entirely comfortable with how the black “help” are treated and so she decides to write a book that will expose the injustices they silently suffer every day.
In order to do this, Skeeter approaches Aibileen (Viola Davis), the maid of one of her friends. Aibileen believes that no good could come from her discussing what it’s really like to work for the white families, and so she refuses at first. She changes her mind, though, as things get worse for her and her best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer), who is Hilly’s maid and in an impossible situation. Soon, the two women begin to tell Skeeter their stories. This eventually convinces more of the frightened maids to come forward to describe the horrendous conditions they face.
Taylor does nothing to try to honor the real women whose lives are reflected in the film. Instead, he sketches each maid as nothing more than one side of the “Mammy” character. Aibileen is eternally loving and nurturing and Minny is the sassy loudmouth; these aren’t characters as much as caricatures. One almost expects them all to be wearing doo-rags and breaking into song.
As a director, Taylor is barely present, giving not a hint of artistic expression or individuality. While his costume and set design teams do an extraordinary job with the clothes and appearance of the town and its inhabitants, Taylor fails to draw us into the world of the late-1960s. His script drags on far too long, mainly because he spends too much time following the wrong characters. Why do we care that Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is thought to be the town tramp and ostracized by the other women? Do we really need to watch Skeeter’s courtship, which is doomed to fail? The film is called The Help. I think it would do the real-life women justice to focus on them.
The only part of the film that has any redeeming quality is Howard as Hilly, the most unforgivable character in the film, but at least the best performed. Howard is terrifying as the ignorant housewife who rules the town with an iron fist and can destroy someone’s life without breaking a sweat.
The Help is like watching a Disney movie about the 1960s made in the 1950s. Taylor has insulted his audience’s intelligence and the memory of the real maids who once actually existed. | Matthew Newlin