...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Many Americans may like to forget that as recently as the 1960s the racial prejudice that has since become more reduced, or at least more closeted, was rampant and overt. Despite the closeness of that era, much of the truth of both the African-American and white experience at that time still remains untold. The Help strives to peel off another layer of secrecy by exposing the often harsh and appalling realities that African-American women, working as maids in the South, faced on a daily basis.
With superior acting, direction, and an unforgettable story, The Help has the makings of a classic with the potential to leave an indelible, positive impression on viewers’ hearts and minds. Sadly, that potential is cut short before its bloom by the choking weeds of gratuitous foul language, unexpected crudity, and an endorsement of repaying evil with more of the same.
In the state known as the worst for racial tensions and segregation during the 1960s, Mississippi resident Abileen Clark is well aware that life as an African-American woman is far from easy in her town of Jackson. As a maid for a white household, Abileen is one of many African-American ladies who essentially raise society ladies’ white babies while being treated as less than human with salaries to match.
Fear and a lack of knowing any other life kept Abileen quiet and submissive for most of her life, and she did her job well, even becoming purposeful about making sure the white children she reared knew they were special and loved. After the death of her only son, however, Abileen’s attitude began to change, but she lacked the will or motivation to act on her new feelings of intolerance toward her white employers and opted to keep the peace.
That is, until Skeeter Phelan, a young writer, returns to Jackson where she grew up, bringing new ideas with her. Brought up by an African-American maid herself, the fresh college grad’s love for the woman who was more of a mother than her biological parent enables Skeeter to see the cruelties and humiliations that African-American maids silently suffer in many of the white households. Determined to expose the truth of this situation with the hope of ending it, Skeeter approaches Abileen about being the first of the African-American maids to tell her story in a book Skeeter hopes to have published.
Abileen initially refuses, fearful of not only losing her job, but of being attacked and killed for airing the truth she knows. As racial violence in the South escalates, Abileen’s fears are understandable and warranted. But as injustices to Abileen and her friends multiply in Jackson and with Skeeter’s persistent persuasion, Abileen starts to reconsider.
A timely message from the pastor at Abileen’s church pushes her to make a decision, and the dangerous effort to write a book that would be in violation of Mississippi law and public sentiment begins.
A Hollywood production that positively (though briefly) features a pastor, church, and even mentions the love of Jesus Christ? Surprisingly, yes. But before jumping to embrace this film because it includes these Christian elements, discerning viewers should be warned that The Help handles this content in a highly modern way—picking and choosing as if Christianity were a take-out menu and twisting the message of Christ’s love until it fits the story’s misguided sense of morality and justice.
While Abileen tells Skeeter that God changed her mind to make her want to voice her story, the connection between God (by way of the pastor’s sermon) and Abileen’s decision to share her experiences is almost nonexistent, despite the filmmakers’ inexplicable efforts to connect the two elements.
In the church message, which is supposedly so pivotal for Abileen, the pastor urges his congregation to courageously demonstrate Christ’s love not only to their friends and neighbors, but to their enemies. The commandment for Christians to show love to their enemies is portrayed as the idea that impacts Abileen so irrevocably, and she even returns to this subject in her narrative summation at the close of the film.
However, throughout the course of this story, neither Abileen nor any other character in The Help ever shows kindness, let alone love, to an enemy. There are moments of love to the child of an enemy, or someone who had been perceived as an enemy, or to a member of the “enemy” race, but never to someone who was culpable for offense. Instead, the African-American maids use their rising courage to retaliate for the abhorrent treatment they received.
[SPOILER WARNING] For example, Minny Jackson, a house maid and Abileen’s best friend, gets back at Hilly Holbrook (her white employer who is the ultimate and highly despicable villainess of this story) with an act that is not only disgusting and crude, but in extreme contrast to the purported message of loving one’s enemies. Minny’s defiant act of revenge may not be as hurtful or pervasively unjust as the treatment she suffers at Hilly’s hands, yet Minny’s behavior and the endorsement from other characters of what Minny did (despite her “sorry because I might get in trouble” regrets) present a harmful, misleading example for victims of adversity to follow.
Rather than truly responding with love to their enemies, Minny, Abileen, and the other maids risk their lives to make themselves heard to end the unfair treatment, but also to repay those that caused them harm. In this latter motivation, these women risk something even more serious than their lives—the very real possibility of becoming more like their persecutors than they, or the filmmakers, would ever dream.
Thus, by the time Abileen again references the message of showing God’s love to one’s enemies at the end of the movie, her admission that actually doing this is difficult is ironically correct. No one in the film seems to have been able to accomplish that goal, or even to have really tried. Unfortunately, Abileen seems to believe she made a good effort, as she says that perhaps telling the truth is a start to loving her enemies. Telling the truth is indeed good and admirable, but there is never a trace of love for these women’s enemies in the intention or results of exposing the maids’ true stories.
With The Help, this erroneous application of a right idea is particularly disappointing, as the film simultaneously encourages many positive values and thought-provokingly delves into several vital issues in addition to its strongest message on racism. The plight of both white and African-American women in the South is compellingly explored, as are the issues of motherhood, domestic abuse, relationships, and love of many kinds.
In particular, there are excellent examples of motherly love by the African-American maids, contrasted with the inconsistent or absent affection from the biological mothers, demonstrating the need in a child’s life for the love of a mother and the power its presence or absence has to build up or destroy. Friendship is also a strong element throughout the movie and is the thread that binds across social and racial barriers.
Even without the irreparable crack in the film’s primary theme, these positive messages would be diminished by the negative content which includes an abundance of offensive language as the primary concern. “S---” and “D---” show up more times than one should have to count, while the Lord’s name is misused aplenty, as well. In addition to the language issue, there is significant immodesty in the dress of one character, as well as crudity throughout the film—including Minny’s retaliatory act and several people shown using toilets (though we only see their legs and no actual nudity).
Perhaps the dangers of The Help’s problematic elements wouldn’t be so great if not for the high production values that make them more palatable. From a filmmaking perspective, this film deserves much of the critical acclaim it has received. Actor Viola Davis excels, as she nearly always does, this time in her role as the complicated and reluctantly heroic Abileen. Octavia Spencer, playing Minny, handles both the comedic and dramatic demands of her role admirably. As Skeeter, Emma Stone is at once the charming and emotionally compelling young woman needed for the important role.
Director Tate Taylor clearly has a handle on guiding actors of various experience levels, as well as having a strong vision of the story he wants to tell. His storytelling of this original and compelling tale is cohesive and powerful, assisted by the unremarkable, but unfailingly solid cinematography.
Ultimately, however, these efforts are like spreading frosting on a moldy cake.
The Help tells the story of the victims of prejudice and inhumanity and their courageous effort to expose evil. But viewers who can see past the misguided emphasis on telling the truth will see that it also unintentionally reveals the demoralization of the victims themselves, as cruelty and injustice start to beget the same from those first injured.
Yes, telling the truth of their situation may make these women feel more free and justified, but The Help fails to illustrate that only love (not truth or retaliation) will melt the hearts of the racial bigots—the “enemies”—and bring about lasting change.
Check out these movies instead:
Driving Miss Daisy (The Zanuck Company, 1989)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal International Pictures, 1962)
Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (The Hatchery, 2009)