Film review: The Help – 2011

This review contains spoilers, so if you have not yet watched the film and intend watching it in the near future, now may not be the best time to read this.  

The Help is a movie set in 1960s America during the Civil Rights movement. It tries to understand the lives of black American women who work as household help in some of Virginia’s richest homes. How they are treated by their employers, how they handle the minor and major snubs, how their lives could be taken over by their employers’ whims and how all this affects their own personal lives is the focus of the film.

The movie depicts Jackson, Virginia in the 1960s as a close-knit community with the black population working for the upper class and rich white Americans. There is one woman (Skeeter) who does not feel this racial division is correct and she pins her dream on writing a book about how these household nannies functioned, looking at things from their perspective, rather than the more commonly touted employer viewpoint.

The movie starts with Aibileen confessing she wanted to do something else other than be a maid. Indeed, the lives of maids were emotionally very tough. Some of the things that made the discrimination stand out starkly were:

  • Hilly marking the toilet paper for Minny’s use.
  • Hilly and her friends discussing that the maids must go outside to use the toilet. “They carry different diseases than we do.”
  • Minny being fired for using the bathroom inside instead of going out in a storm. (Yes, I just realized how much toilet saga there is in this movie).
  • Male police officers actually manhandling the black women.

The concept for this movie is wonderful, and there were plenty of excellent actors giving excellent performances. What puts a spoke in the wheel for me is the clear villain of the piece. Hilly is clearly designated for this part, and she goes above and beyond the call of duty of a racist bitch to put her (and everyone else’s) darker skinned maids in their place. But this is not limited to the servants, as Hilly is just as capable of intimidating her friend circle, not to mention her own mother. So the movie focuses too much on one mean person, rather than the social structure as a whole being disadvantageous to some people. It treats the subject of racism as a very simple one rather than the complex issue that it is in reality. People nice to their parents and friends could be mean to others. Everyone at the end turned out very nice and helpful and Hilly was left fuming. Very Hollywoodish!

Another problem is that there seem to be absolutely no men involved in this subjugation of women. We all know that personal serving women in places where discrimination is rampant have been subject to several injustices at the hands of their male employers, and in other cases have also been helped by them. Completely disregarding that part of the story is not going to make this a feminist movie. The one man they did introduce as a love interest for Skeeter only took focus away from the story.

That said, there were some really poignant moments in the film. The Celia and Minny side story was very nice, but it felt tacked on to showcase a white couple being nice; but only because they lived outside society. Minny’s daughter being taken out of school and sent to work as a maid after she loses her job is also a very emotional scene. The little child crying for her nanny made me feel sad. So much political nonsense and the child was the one who had it right.

Understandably there was not much humour in the movie, but one scene I really laughed was when Hilly’s garden was filled with commodes, and she screams “I specifically said, drop old coats off at my house”. That’s Hilly told then!

But in my opinion, what really gave this film substance was the fear of the maids themselves to say anything about their experiences for fear of being fired, ostracised or killed. The way Minny constantly holds out in the beginning and speaks against this book for protecting her interests and that of her sisters provides a very strong feel of the fear in which these people must have lived their lives. The mistrust most of these women feel for Skeeter even though she tries to help them firmly puts her in another social bracket, which would have been how it was.

Another very realistic scene was when Skeeter’s mother switched off the TV while Medgar Evers is giving a speech because she didn’t want the black servants to get newfangled ideas. The sudden violence erupting out of nowhere on the murder of Evers by the KKK was also pretty much indicative of the times.

In spite of the Hollywood feel, it is a good film and has historical events as a background, which in itself helps a lot in giving realism to the film. It is certainly worth a watch.

My rating: 3.5/5

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. scribblehappy
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 06:50:18

    The restrictions on the use of the toilet rings very familiar in the context of domestic workers in India too.

    /a book about how these household nannies functioned, looking at things from their perspective, rather than the more commonly touted employer viewpoint./

    That’s true–most accounts of nannies are given from the employer’s perspective (Gone with the wind, To kill a mockingbird et al). It would be interesting indeed to read something written from the nannies’ perspective–have you come across any such book?

  2. Indian Homemaker
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 09:49:23

    I have read the book and watched the movie – I thought this was like the story from the other side, from the point of view of the Mammie in ‘Gone with the wind’.

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