While the specific events of The Help might not be real, the depictions of life in the South during the 60s couldn’t be more accurate. For this reason, The Help is an extremely important film, one that serves as a reminder of the darkness in our country’s past. The help of the title refer to the black maids who worked in the homes of the white families at this time. To the children, these maids were practically members of the family, often more of a parent than the actual mother. And yet, the were still treated as second-class citizens, forced to use seperate restrooms, drink from seperate fountains, etc. It’s sad, but this is a part of our past we must never forget.
Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help frames it’s story around that of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a wannabe journalist attempting to make a name for herself. Her breakthrough idea is to interview several black maids, and present the world from their point of view. It’s a radical plan, one that had never been done before, and one which would change the town forever.
This could have been presented in a heavy Oscar-bait sort of way, and while the film definitely deserves some Oscar gold, the film never has that self-serious air of importance you’d expect with a film such as this. I was surprised at just how funny the film is, and while this is definitely a serious subject, the film plays light with the material while never glossing over the importance of what we’re seeing. Writer and director Tate Taylor does a remarkable job balancing tone in this film, always finding the truth in every moment no matter how serious or lighthearted it may be.
Helping to strike this balance is a phenomenal ensemble cast, featuring Emmas Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Viola Davis, Octavia Davis, and a star-making performance from Jessica Chastain. Expect to see a lot of these women as we get into awards season. While I have seen most of these actors in a lot of other films, I was able to completely lose myself in their performances here. The film feels like a perfect snapshot of a time I never saw, and each of these performers inhabit their characters with the layers you would expect each of these people to have from living in that world.
In order to capture the reality of this world, Kathryn Stockett and Tate Taylor simply had to think back to their childhoods. It turns out that they both grew up together in the South, in the 60s. Taylor even had his own maid much like those depicted in the film. This is covered extensively in the fascinating behind-the-scenes features on the recently released Blu-Ray. In one of the features, Taylor even interviews his old maid. There’s an obvious affection for this woman he came to think of as another mother, and it’s sort of beautiful to see how everything came full circle for him with this film.
The main documentary on the set is called “Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film.” I feel like the key word in that title is “friendship,” considering that almost everybody involved behind-the-scenes have been friends for years. The film was shot in their old hometown, and some of the sets were actual locations from the director’s past. If he didn’t have a direct connection, the odds are still that he knew the history of the place. I can’t help but feel that it is this familiarity and personal connection that makes The Help so unique.
There are also deleted scenes, a music video, etc. But really, the standouts on this set are the making of doc, which is more of a history of the project than anything, and the interviews with the real maids. It truly is a touching feature. I would have loved a commentary track considering how obviously personal this film was, but what we get still provides a great deal of fascinating insight. This is a remarkable film, and definitely not one I expected to enjoy this much. We like to sweep these moments from our past under the rug, and that is why I am grateful for films like this. Films capable of telling an entertaining story while looking back without criticism, but with honesty and insight.