There’s an innate and unfortunate skepticism that creeps into my mind whenever I haven’t watched a movie but see it showing up on everyone’s short lists of award contenders for the year. As much as I try to fight it, I always feel a little argumentative and rebellious when I’m about to watch a widely lauded movie for the first time, like I have an egotistical obligation to prove everybody else’s opinions wrong. I come to you today shamefaced but pleased, having been put resoundingly in my place by my first viewing of The Help, one of the best movies released in 2011.
Based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is simultaneously a tragic and triumphant tale of living with and fighting against racism in Mississippi in the early ‘60s. It’s nearly impossible not to love Emma Stone in everything she does, and the trend continues here as she dons the spectacles and sensible shoes of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. Skeeter is a recent college graduate determined to break into the world of print journalism. She grew up in the wealthy White society of Jackson, Mississippi, where nearly every family employed Black women as maids. Although the maids became essential parts of the families, doing everything from cooking meals to raising the children, the era’s bleak culture of racism dehumanized the “help” to most of the employers.
Having been raised and loved by her family’s longtime maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson), Skeeter sees troubles in Jackson that are invisible to most of the White gentry. Her friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) rules her circle of friends with an ignorant and bigoted wrath while verbally and emotionally abusing her own maids. Skeeter resolves to do something about the injustices she is witnessing, and she sets her journalistic sights on compiling a volume of accounts from the maids to illuminate the racist truth of life in her town. The maids are fearful of reprisal from their bosses, and rightly so. Skeeter manages to befriend Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a maid who works for one of Skeeter’s friends, and the two set about recording Aibileen’s stories of her time and experiences working as a maid. Soon Aibileen’s friend and fellow maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) reluctantly shares some of her own stories. Skeeter still needs more maids involved before she’ll be able to publish her book, but she quickly learns that convincing the help to talk with her is a daunting task.
Backed by accounts of actual events of the period, The Help recounts an ugly time in American history. Discrimination definitely still rears its ugly head today, but the sort of blatant segregation and bigotry reflected in The Help is a painful and astonishing reminder of the ignorance that permeated our society in the mid-twentieth century and before. The villains of the film are the arrogant and willfully vapid dragons of Jackson’s White society. Watching their wickedness is excruciating but makes the occasional comeuppance—well, I hesitate to use the word “delicious” in light of a particular plot turn, but it’s certainly satisfying.
The new Blu-ray release of The Help presents gorgeous video and sound, accompanied by several special features that are exclusive to the Blu-ray version:
- Five deleted scenes, all of which are far better than the usual “deleted scene” fare we usually get
- In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi – A 12 minute segment featuring statements from real life maids, including some of the inspirations for the original novel and director Tate Taylor’s own childhood caretaker.
- The Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film – A 23 minute special with the writers and creators of The Help, spotlighting the locations, performances, and construction of the novel and film.
- Music Video – “The Living Proof” by Mary J. Blige
As someone who was born in the American South in the 1970s and grew up in suburban Georgia less than two decades after the events of The Help, I witnessed the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and the lingering ugliness of racism that remained afterwards. Although I didn’t grow up in the same high society circles shown in the film and my immediate family never had employed maids, I found a lot of veracity in the horribleness of some of the characters. The Hilly Holbrooks of the ‘60s had transformed into nosy and bitter old women by the time I came along, but enough of the old South still survived to make me feel the tragedies and victories of The Help especially strongly. The movie’s strongest point is its cast, loaded full of awards worthy women giving unforgettable performances.
The Help released on DVD and Blu-ray as a combo pack on December 6, 2011.