On paper “white woman exposes unfair treatment of black maids in 60s Mississippi” probably sounds like a deeply serious Time-Life docu-drama, or some Matthew Perry, white guilt schlock. But rather, The Help is a witty, uplifting comeuppance tale in which nasty housewives are made to eat some very humble pie. It’s packed with sassy comebacks, secret women’s’ business and wicked pranks which shine all the more triumphant against a dark background of police brutality, segregation, and an active KKK. This produces a compelling sincerity the women of Wisteria Lane could only dream of.
In the 1960s, Jackson, Mississippi was a place of bullet-bras, and pastel Bakelite appliances. It was the heyday of neighbourhood solidarity: tidy lawn competitions, housewife committees and punchbowl charity galas. Of course, none of this blow-dried pomp could take place without “the help”. Young, indulgent white housewives relied heavily on the blue-collar black women who worked as their maids. The Help is the story of ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone), a cosmopolitan-headed young writer and her unlikely friendship with two maids, Minny (Octavia Jackson) and Aibileen (Viola Davis), as together they anonymously pen the first ever novel about life as a maid. Their stories reveal malice and mistreatment of their uninterested employers. The worst of these is the manipulative Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a nasty piece of work and segregation lobbyist.
Visually, The Help is spectacular. Sweeping aerial shots take in manicured green lawns and white-pillared plantation homes, among vast fields pulsating with crickets: Jackson was a small town that thought it was the only town in America. The mid-Western summer heat almost radiates off the screen via sweat patches on grey maids uniforms, poetic dust clouds rising in the wake of cherry-red Chevrolet Corvets and my god, those Turkish-style glasses sweetly clinking with ice cold iced tea. If anything The Help proves that however expensive or fashionable something is, it can still be broken. This era of social discrimination was just that.
I think The Help is also an important film. Sometimes, the marker that a cultural belief has become convention is not when a graduate film student makes a controversial documentary about it (although there is a place for that) but when it hits the mainstream entertainment market. I doubt The Help will be considered a provocative film, which suggests the segregation it documents as being implausible to audiences. This is not to say that racial discrimination has been eradicated because of one funny movie, but rather that in describing past attitudes as fiction we strip them of their validity.
After years of being romanticised the 60s housewife often appears to girls nowadays as a kind of domestic goddess, an infinitely savvy woman-about-the-house who never let the Mixmaster splatter her apron. The truth, as the story of Jackson shows, was that wealthy housewives had absolutely no idea about cooking, cleaning or even raising their children any further than that last laborious push. It’s a lifestyle unrecognisable from that of the modern female multi-tasker; getting promoted, now dropping off kids, now learning French, yoga, pottery, Salmon en Papillete, between coffee with the girls. The absurdity of that bygone lifestyle is ripe for comedy.
The Help is probably therefore an important one for the ladies. Almost the entire plot goes down under the noses of the male characters without their slightest influence. It muses on the female friendship, an untameable beast that is at once powerful and contenting. In particular, it nurses the idea that only through hardship can one foster sisterly love, and that pure frivolity, regardless of how good the fried chicken or potatah salad is, cannot give us the means to show our mettle or truly connect. Perhaps a secondary reason to go see this with the girls, is of course the chance to glimpse the scrumptious Nelsan Ellis (True Blood’s Lafayette) charmingly attired in flat cap, bow tie and thick rimmed spectacles.
Those with an octogenarian grandmother will probably, like me, spend most of the film simpering over the food. Every social scene is accompanied by the most spectacularly out-dated terrines, bean salads, and ridiculous garnishes (whole grapes sprinkled over mayonnaise chicken?). Memories of my Nanna’s anachronistic multi-coloured pickled onions and toothpick-skewered cheddar cubes came flooding back. The fried chicken motif, however, was the most haunting: my resolve trembled as the seductively nose-slapping smell of KFC charged its way past the giant rotating bucket into my nostrils on the way home.
The most important feature of The Help is it’s humour. I say this because as a young female who was tickled by the 60s dress code of the preview screening, I am the target audience. If anything is proof of that, it’s that my +1 and I won door prizes for our lacquered beehives, pearls and fur boleros, then had synchronised mascara emergencies in the Kleenex-sponsored scenes (the cinema is a cruel mistress for the smoky-eye enthusiast). Were it not hilarious, largely on the part of bombastically sassy Minny (“mmm-hmm!”) it would be hard to recommend a film centrally formed around the dynamics of female social stigma and delectable period dresses to anybody other than women, and women who like dramas at that. But the appeal of The Help really does reach beyond those self-evident charms to woo a much wider audience.
Indeed, the writing is exceptional. The plot is riveting yet consistently paced, with surprises, rivalries, a hint of romance and a splash of toilet humour. The characters are complex, yet make a brilliant kind of intuitive sense and really capture that upstairs/downstairs theme. The funniest moments are in the stories told by the maids Skeeter interviews, as they describe from a totally uninvested point of view, the vanities and silliness of their housewife employers. It seems the business of keeping up appearances can indeed be very ugly, more so than one of Hyacinth Bucket’s candlelit suppers, no doubt. Aibileen and Minny are two of the most admirable characters I’ve encountered on screen. They are underpaid, yet wise and pragmatic; underdogs yet stoic; haunted yet hopeful. These maids, their inner life hidden behind washing baskets and training diapers make the very picture of womanhood. Which is something very different from femininity.
As the credits rolled on The Help, I could hear applause in the auditorium, I had a distinct craving for fried chicken and cold potato salad, and a particular song was stuck in my head.
Yes, “Minny had a heart that was as big as a whale”.