Tate Taylor’s new film, The Help, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, peers into the racially divided town of Jackson, Mississippi in the early-1960s. This time period should evoke a few contemporary landmarks, such as Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and President John F. Kennedy’s introduction of legislation that would soon become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, this film insults the empowering spirit of the Civil Rights movement.
Our story follows Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone), a young white aspiring journalist; Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a black maid and child caregiver; and Aibileen’s best friend, Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer), also a maid. These three women form an unlikely and ill-advised relationship when they undertake a covert writing project that breaks societal rules and places a target on their foreheads.
I found Stone delightful to watch, convincing me that Skeeter is both well meaning and self-sacrificing. Skeeter, just returned from college, finds work at Jackson Journal as a cleaning-advice columnist. Because she has never done housework, she goes to Aibileen for help. That, in addition to the construction of an outdoor toilet for the maids – think Rosa Parks and the back of the bus – is what sparks Skeeter’s idea to do a book of interviews with the maids of Jackson, telling the story of Southern domestic life from their point of view. Her reevaluation of what is common versus what is right is respectable in its context.
However, looking at this film as a piece of literature, Skeeter falls into the archetype of the “white savior,” a typical yet nonetheless problematic storytelling methodology where a white character serves as the inspiration African American people need to stand up for their rights (you know, because they’d never considered it). I find it very disconcerting that Skeeter, a white, young woman with relatively little life experience, holds the power to thrust Abileen into action. I want to see Abileen thrust Abileen into action.
It’s highly significant that the first character we see and hear (and feel a connection to) is Abileen. While Skeeter may technically be the protagonist, I consider her a mere driver for Abileen’s story. As jubilant as Skeeter proved to be, it was Davis’s honest and evocative performances as Abileen that really stole the show for me.
Bryce Dallas Howard portrays Hilly Holbrook on the big screen, Skeeter’s childhood friend. Hilly represents everything the South needs to change. She remains almost statically racist and self-interested until the movie starts coming to a close. At this point, the film plays up Hilly’s feelings of guilt and remorse for her mistreatment and mistrust of Abileen in what appears to be an attempt at vindicating her. I find it slightly offensive that the film tried to coax me into feeling sympathy for her.
Unfortunately, most audience members probably leave the theater thinking, “Oh, look how far we’ve come,” when they should be making contemporary connections. But I hope, if nothing more, that this film will remind Americans that equal rights have not always applied to all; many would argue that they still do not. Sure, progress has been made. People of color can access our society much more freely than they could in 1963. Nevertheless, hardworking members of the working class are still disrespected, exploited and dehumanized every day. I know this because I read the works of socially conscious, educated people – sociologists, anthropologists, social workers, etc. – because, as the movie demonstrates, our society values the voices of people in positions of dominance over firsthand accounts from the disadvantaged.