By Christian L. Pyle
Tate Taylor’s recent movie, The Help, garnered substantial box office and a majority of positive reviews (73% fresh on RottenTomatoes.com), but some critics denounced it. Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry called it “ahistorical and deeply troubling.” Dana Stevens of Slate.com wrote that The Help put “a Barbie Band-Aid on the still-raw wound of race relations in America.”
The Help attempts to cover the mistreatment of African-American maids by their white employers in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, the year of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and Medgar Evers’ assassination. At the center of the film is “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer and editor of the newsletter of the Junior League, an organization of former debutantes headed by the film’s villain, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). The only writing job Skeeter can find in Jackson is ghosting a housework advice column in the newspaper. Having been brought up with (and by) a maid, Skeeter has no clue how to perform housework, so she enlists the aid of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), the maid for another Junior Leaguer.
As Skeeter begins to explore the life of a maid, she finds that a bizarre and paranoid set of restrictions keeps the maids from using the bathrooms in the houses they clean and confines them to using the same plate and glass every day for their meals. Blacks carry different diseases than whites, explains Hilly, who is spearheading a campaign to put special bathrooms in white houses for the help to use. Hilly fires her own maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), after Minny uses the indoor bathroom during a storm.
Skeeter is a familiar type of heroine—too smart and forward-thinking for her environment and brave enough to let everyone know it. Skeeter decides that the treatment of maids must be brought to light. After getting a contract with Harper & Row, Skeeter secretly begins to gather the stories of maids, beginning with Aibileen and Minny, then expanding to others. Skeeter realizes that what she’s doing is illegal (Mississippi had a law against promoting racial equality), and the maids are aware of the terrible violence they would face if their participation became known. Skeeter’s book, The Help, disguises the names of both the innocent and the guilty but creates a local scandal nonetheless.