The movie ‘The Help’ first came out in 2011 and is based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 book of the same name. As the book soon became popular and made it onto many compulsory literature lists and soon after was made into a movie, it is safe to say that many people have heard about it. However, if you have not read the book or seen the movie yet, the reason to do so very soon is because the story displays society as it was back in the 1960s in the USA. It shows how approximately 60 years ago, society was divided due to racial differences and gender differences, and because of that it is a good reminder of why it is worth fighting for equality in every way possible. Here the movie is reviewed rather than the book, because the movie highlights key elements of the story very well and by seeing the striking differences that are emphasized in the story on-screen, the viewer gets a really good perspective of how unfair society was at the time.
The movie was directed by Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett. Their collaboration probably explains why the movie resembles the book so perfectly. Some well-known celebrities star in the movie, such as Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard. The movie has been nominated for, among many others, Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTA awards. It has won several awards such as an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supportive Role for Octavia Spencer, a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for Viola Davis, and countless others.
The story takes place in the early 1960s, in a town named Jackson, Mississippi. It is centered around maids, who at that time were of African-American descent and worked for wealthy white families. The three main characters are Aibileen Clark, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan and Minny Jackson.
Aibileen Clark is 53 years old and has over her lifetime taken care of 18 white babies. In the story, she is taking care of Mae Mobly Leefolt and naturally she also takes care of the household chores. She is a very kind and patient person who writes down her prayers every night.
Minny Jackson, a good friend of Aibileen's, is a mixture of sassy and kind. She is married to Leroy, who unfortunately is abusive and beats her regularly. Together, they have five children. We see how she has to restrain her abundant personality as this can get her into trouble with the families she works for. In the beginning of the story, Minny works for the Holbrooks; however, when during a terrible storm Minny refuses to use the outside toilet that has been installed separately for her, as she is the black maid, Hilly Holbrook fires her. She then finds a job at the Foote’s residence. Celia Foote is new in town and married to Johnny – Hilly Holbrook's ex, which has caused quite some damage to her reputation and Minny is much aware of this.
Skeeter, lives with her family on a farm just outside of Jackson, and can clearly see the poor and racist environments that the maids find themselves in day in day out. As she is an aspiring writer, she sees the opportunity to make a change by writing a book from the perspective of the maids about their daily work and the way they are treated. Skeeter was raised by a maid herself, whom she holds very dear. She does not agree with friends of hers who have maids and treat them poorly. As she says in the story: ‘we love them and they love us – but they can’t even use the toilets in our houses’ - referring to a petition that was her notorious friend Hilly Holbrook’s idea, which recommends every household to have a separate toilet for their maid as she could carry diseases.
Aibileen and Minny were hesitant to help Skeeter at first, out of fear of what the consequences might be once the story gets published. However, recent events have the town on edge, such as a young man getting slaughtered by the KKK, and a maid, who is friends with Aibileen and Minny, being imprisoned for stealing a ring to get her sons to university, In the end, they decide to help Skeeter out by telling her their stories so she can write them down and send them to a New York publisher. The timing seems perfect, as Martin Luther King will soon lead his march on Washington D.C. They gather all the maids that are willing to share their stories and Skeeter takes it from there, finishing her book on time and it indeed gets published anonymously.
Differences in Race
Analyzing this story from the perspective of a multicultural individual, there are many things that are striking, from the obvious racist incidents to differences in language use, mixing of cultural features, and gender differences. First things first, the obvious difference that this story is based upon is the difference between colored people and white people in a Southern state such as Mississippi in the 1960s. These colored maids worked their fingers to the bone, for low wages and few or no perks, doing this six days a week, while many white people did not lift a finger in managing their own household, or raising their own kids. White and colored people lived in separate neighborhoods and their social networks did not intertwine. Even being seen with someone of the other race outside of working hours is frowned upon, as when Aibileen refuses to let Skeeter give her a ride home when she has missed the bus, since this would suggest an inappropriate relationship as friends.
Tradition vs. Modernity
We can also see the differences between different generations and a tension between tradition and modernity. Skeeter’s mother Charlotte desperately wants Skeeter to find herself a husband and really pushes her to do something about this situation. As Charlotte is seriously ill and knows she does not have a long time left to live, she wants to make sure that Skeeter will have something to hold on to when she is no longer around. She is so desperate about why Skeeter might not be putting more effort into this matter that she even confronts her by saying: ‘Are you…do you…find men attractive? Are you having unnatural thoughts about…girls or women? Because it says in this article there's a cure, a special root tea.’ This shows that the idea of being gay is slowly working its way into society, but is definitely not accepted.
Skeeter is not interested in women, but simply thinks that finding a husband is an inferior cause and she has her mind set on addressing the conditions of the colored maids and also on making a career for herself as a writer. In the end, Charlotte is proud of her daughter and the brave thing she has accomplished.
The issues of the maids itself is a clash between tradition and modernity. For many of the white housewives, they simply have a maid like their mothers did before them. To them, it is like continuing a tradition. Naturally, for the maids it is a tradition to overcome: they want to progress with the rest of the nation and rise up against these racist conditions.
The differences between genders are also easy noticeable. The men work and earn the money, while the women stay at home or attend one of their many club meetings or other committee gatherings with the other women from town. Skeeter is thereby portrayed to be a very modern woman as she has actually gone to college and has the ambition to become a writer, rather than finding a husband and settling down.
Language use and Cultural Traditions
Another thing that is striking is language use. As the colored maids take care of white children, these then take over some of their language use. Many of the colored people for example use ‘is’ when standard English uses ‘are’. When Aibileen speaks to Mae Mobly she says “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” Mae copies this effortlessly.
Another way in which the movie emphasizes the mixing of cultural features, is that white ladies are not by far as good at baking and cooking as their maids are. From chicken to pies, the maids create the most delicious dishes. One can assume that the maids have been taught how to do so by their mothers, meaning that the recipes go way back. This could be seen as an example of cultural tradition. In the movie, housemaid Minny teaches her employer Celia Foote how to cook, since this is not one of her strong points. This is a good example of cultural mixing, as Celia is taught how to cook by her maid, who is from a different cultural background than she herself is.
In conclusion, we can say that besides being a well-written, serious yet humorous novel, adapted into a beautiful movie, the story addresses some serious topics. Not only does it address the poor conditions under which these African-American maids lived and worked, but also underlying and less self-evident issues, such as the gender roles of the time and the tension between tradition and more modern views. As it says on the film poster: ‘Change begins with a whisper’, referring to how change was set in motion by Skeeter first quietly addressing her ideas of how to create change, by talking to a publisher and the maids. Only after this happened was the process of creating the book started by interviewing Aibileen and Minny, who then spread the word to other maids. In the end, the book was published, which contributed to addressing problems in society and improving the situation not only in Jackson, but in the entire country. This change doesn't just only apply to the behavior towards and views of colored people, but also to gender roles, in short: changes needed to adapt to a modern and better era, bringing about real social change in society.
IMDb, author unknown.
Columbus, C. Barnathan, M. Green, B & Tate, T. (2011) The Help. (Motion Picture). United States. Walt Disney Studios, Motion pictures.
Stockett, K. (2009) The Help. Amy Einhorn Books.