Sometimes what you plan to do and what actually happens are two very different things. Take the case of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. When the recent college grad returns to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, she’s not looking to challenge the status quo or stir up trouble.
But she does anyway.
It begins when she gets a job at the local paper penning the weekly cleaning advice column. Skeeter doesn’t know much about cleaning, so she asks her socialite friend Elizabeth Leefolt if she can talk with her black maid, Aibileen Clark, about the subject.
Questions about getting stains out soon lead to deeper inquiries: “Do you ever dream of being something else?” Skeeter asks Aibileen. “What does it feel like to raise a white child?”
They’re questions born of Skeeter’s precocious nature and her penchant for treating Aibileen as an equal, not simply as “the help.” And the answers are so compelling Skeeter sends them to an editor in New York whom she hopes to work for someday. The editor promptly tells her, “Get more stories.”
Skeeter’s enthusiasm to share the secret stories of the maids, however, is about as far removed from the attitudes of her peers as it can be. Elizabeth starts to get nervous that Skeeter is talking to Aibileen—really talking to her—too much. And then there’s Hilly Holbrook, a self-righteous defender of Jackson’s racially divided status quo, to contend with.
So it’s no surprise that Aibileen isn’t sure she wants to share much more of her story—let alone recruit other maids to tell theirs. Especially against the idea is Hilly’s feisty, backtalking maid, Minny, who, ironically, doesn’t need any help from Skeeter when it comes to stirring up trouble.
But as racial tensions mount (including the murder of a civil rights leader), Aibileen, Minny and scores of other maids decide the time has come to let Skeeter write their stories. And when Skeeter’s book The Help is published anonymously, well, let’s just say that Hilly Holbrook is none too happy about it.
The Help is an emotionally compelling film that lifts the veil on a group of industrious, longsuffering maids persevering through years of service to white employers who frequently treat them as subhuman. Hilly’s cruelty, for example, is evident in the way she demands that separate outhouses be built for the maids—they need to “take their business outside,” she opines—even helping to sponsor a bill that would make such treatment required. That’s not positive, of course. But it is just one of the many ways the film reveals the plight of a people who are separate but definitely not equal.
Despite such prejudice, Aibileen exercises remarkable tenderness in the way she raises Elizabeth’s daughter, Mae Mobley. In addition to tending to all the household’s domestic duties—cooking, cleaning, buying groceries—Aibileen is devoted to the toddler, telling her, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important. You’re so good.” Those messages stand in stark contrast to the ones handed to Aibileen from her white employer.
Skeeter, meanwhile, represents the possibility of a new way, a new day in which blacks might be treated as respected equals. Skeeter risks her reputation to capture these women’s stories—and hearts—in her writing, and she’s determined to see the task through.
A subplot gives us an additional glimpse into Skeeter’s motivation. When she returns from college, she learns that the aging maid who had faithfully served her own family for decades, a woman named Constantine, was no longer there. Skeeter questions her mother, Charlotte, regarding her absence, but Mom refuses to tell her what happened. In the end, the painful truth is revealed, and we see that Charlotte harbors many of the same racist attitudes of those around her. Unlike many of those folks, however, Charlotte sees the error of her ways, regrets her cowardice and stands up for Skeeter’s convictions. “Courage sometimes skips a generation,” she tells her daughter. “Thank you for bringing it back to our family.”
In a flashback, Skeeter remembers a lesson Constantine taught her when she was bullied and labeled ugly. The older woman tells her that ugly isn’t something on the outside, but “something that grows up inside of you.” She tells Skeeter that she has a decision to make: “Am I going to believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?” And regarding her future, Constantine tells her, “As for you, you’re going to do something big.”
Another subplot involves a woman named Celia Foote, who hires Minny as her maid after she’s fired by Hilly. Celia treats Minny kindly, even as an equal. And Minny is initially wary, but eventually a friendship grows between the two. Minny reciprocates Celia’s kindness by helping her when Celia has a miscarriage.
The maids’ perseverance is shown to be directly related to their Christian faith. Aibileen talks about how she keeps prayer journals and says that she writes out her prayers for an hour or two each night. Near the end of the movie, she says, “God says we need to love our enemies. It hard to do. But it can start by telling the truth.”
And tell the truth she does, eventually confronting Hilly, saying, “You scheme and lie. You’re a godless woman, Miss Hilly.” Still, there’s talk about the need to forgive. And Minny says she’s confessed and asked for forgiveness for a particularly nasty prank that she plays on Hilly. “I done ask God to forgive me,” she says.
At a church service, the reverend delivers a sermon from Exodus, emphasizing the importance of doing right despite the weakness of the flesh. He also talks about Jesus’ love for us and says that we, likewise, must be willing to put ourselves in harm’s way for others—for our brothers, our sisters, our families and even for our enemies.
Regarding the death of her son in an accident at work (after which he was brusquely dropped off in front of a hospital), Aibileen tells Skeeter, “It took God and Minny to get through it.” Several times we see a picture of Jesus hanging next to Aibileen’s photo of her deceased son.
A conversation about perseverance includes the repeated phrase, “If God is willing.” We hear frequent—and reverent—exclamations of “oh Lord” and “Lord have mercy.”
Not all references to Christianity are flattering, though. Especially since Hilly claims to be one. When her new maid (after Minny is fired) asks for a $75 loan so that she and her husband won’t have to choose which of their two boys go to college, Hilly refuses. Then she adds, “As a Christian, I’m doing you a favor. God don’t give charity” to those who can earn something themselves.
Celia, a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe, frequently wears outfits that reveal quite a lot of her breasts. Home for a lunch break from work one day, her husband kisses her aggressively and grabs her backside, suggestively talking about how “hungry” he is.
Skeeter’s mother is concerned about her daughter’s laissez-faire attitude toward men and marriage, and wonders if she might be a lesbian. That word is never used, but her mom does talk about a certain root that’s supposedly able to cure women of their unnatural desires.
Skeeter and her boyfriend, Stuart, kiss a couple of times. She and her mother are shown in slips as they try on a dress.
We hear a violent argument between Minny and her husband, who’s obviously throwing things. Later, Minny has a black eye. Celia tells her, “Give it right back to him and tell him to go straight to hell.”
A maid who’s stolen a ring and pawned it is forcefully arrested. When she resists, we see a police officer’s baton come up to strike her before the camera shifts to the winces of her friends. A television newscast reports the shooting of a civil rights leader by a KKK sniper. We also hear of a car being set on fire for racial reasons.
Celia suffers a miscarriage in her bathroom, and we see the floor, her clothes and her hands covered with blood. Afterward, she buries her baby in her yard and plants a rosebush.
Six or seven s-words. Two obvious misuses of Jesus’ name and nearly 10 of God’s name. Four times God’s name is paired with “d‑‑n,” a word that is uttered other times as well. Whites spit out “n-gger” a handful of times. Other profanities include “a‑‑,” a‑‑hole” and “h‑‑‑.”
Virtually everyone, Skeeter included, smokes. And in a self-conscious wink at people’s attitudes toward smoking during that era, Skeeter’s boss says, “I guarantee you one day they’re going to figure out that cigarettes kill you.”
Social drinking is almost as frequent as the smoking. Many scenes picture (white) people downing mixed drinks or martinis. A would-be-suitor for Skeeter is obviously drunk, and he keeps ordering shots. Celia is likewise inebriated at a socialite event.
Hilly concocts a story about Minny stealing something to justify firing her. Later, Hilly’s new maid finds a ring behind a couch and does steal it.
After Minny’s fired, she returns with a pie that Hilly interprets as a peace offering. As she’s eating her second piece and talking about how wonderful it is, she asks what secret ingredient Minny uses to make it taste so good. Minny informs her that the “secret ingredient” is in fact her excrement, twice saying, “Eat my s‑‑‑.” After learning of Hilly’s pie experience, several people (including her mother) meanly make fun of her.
Skeeter plays an unkind joke of her own on Hilly, writing that anyone who wants to donate an old commode can drop it in her yard (an offer quite a few people accept). And speaking of commodes, we see a child and a couple of women using them. (They’re all fully covered.)
Skeeter’s mother makes a disparaging comment about her daughter’s “Mexican man shoes.” Stuart leaves Skeeter after he finds out she’s the author of The Help.
Since it was published in 2009, Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help has become a sensation—both in terms of the rapturous praise heaped upon it and the criticism coming from some who question whether a white woman could do justice to the stories of black maids.
But Alice Walker, who wrote The Color Purple, certainly doesn’t fall into that latter camp. Entertainment Weekly reported that she feared the story would just be picking at old scabs. But when she finally read it, she was moved by its “healing response to a lifetime (really lifetimes) of injustice and hurt.” Likewise, Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain activist Medgar Evers, said at a recent NAACP screening of the film, “They captured the times.” She also added, “If we look seriously at what is happening in America today, there is a need for that knowledge, there is a need for that connection. There’s a need for seeing the spirit and determination of those people.”
The Help is indeed a story of spirit and determination, illuminating the profound dignity of a group of intelligent and hardworking but severely marginalized black women. Likewise, Skeeter Phelan’s determination to treat these “lowly” maids as real human beings, as people of worth instead of just hired help, is equally inspiring. Especially for those who’ve grown up after the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, The Help offers an eye-opening look at the injustices that many if not most blacks in the South had to endure daily.
It also shows some of the right ways (as contrasted by some wrong ones) to deal with that kind of day-to-day struggle.
The only fly in the shoofly pie is that there’s just enough profanity, including s-words and harsh misuses of God’s name, to put off viewers who might otherwise be interested in engaging with this kind of powerful, inspiring story.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.