The Help is a 2011 American drama film adaptation of the novel of the same name (2009) by Kathryn Stockett, adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor. Featuring an ensemble cast, the film is about a young white woman, Eugenie "Skeeter" Phelan, and her relationship with two black maids during Civil Rights era America (the early 1960s). Skeeter is a journalist who decides to write a book from the point of view of the maids (referred to as "the help"), exposing the racism they are faced with as they work for white families.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi, it stars Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogel, Mary Steenburgen, and Allison Janney. Produced by DreamWorks Pictures and distributed by Touchstone Pictures, the film opened to positive reviews and became a box-office success with a gross of $211.6 million against its budget of $25 million.
In February 2012, the film received four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress for Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Chastain, and a win for Best Supporting Actress for Spencer. On January 29, 2012, the film won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is a middle-aged black maid who has spent her life raising white children and has recently lost her only son. Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) is another black maid and Aibileen's best friend whose outspokenness has gotten her fired a number of times; she has built up a reputation for being a difficult employee, but she makes up for this with her phenomenal cooking skills.
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) is a young white woman who has recently moved back home to her family's plantation after graduating from the University of Mississippi to find that her beloved childhood maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), has quit while she was away. Skeeter is skeptical, because she believes Constantine would not have left without writing to her.
Unlike her friends, who attended university to find husbands (and are now all married and having children), Skeeter is single, has a degree, and wants to begin a career as a writer. Her first job is as a "homemaker hints" columnist in the local paper. With Constantine gone, Skeeter asks Aibileen, the maid to her good friend Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), for her help in answering domestic questions. Skeeter becomes uncomfortable with the attitude her friends have towards their "help," especially Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her "Home Help Sanitation Initiative", a proposed bill to provide for separate toilets for black help because she believes (as she puts it) that "black people carry different diseases to white people." Amidst the era of discrimination based on color, Skeeter is one of the few who believe otherwise, and she decides to write a book based on the lives of the maids who have spent their entire lives taking care of white children.
The maids are at first reluctant to talk to Skeeter, because they are afraid that they will lose their jobs or worse. Aibileen is the first to share her stories, after she overhears Hilly's initiative, and realizes that the children whom she has been raising are growing up to be just like their parents. Her friend Minny has just been fired as Hilly's maid as a punishment for Minny using the bathroom during a thunderstorm (revealed by Aibileen to have spawned a tornado and killed eighteen people: ten white, eight black), instead of going to use the separate outdoor toilet. Hilly poisons all the other families against Minny, making it impossible for her to find other work, and her daughter is forced to drop out of school to find a job as a maid. Minny initially declines to participate in Skeeter's book research, but later agrees to share her stories. Aibileen helps her find work with Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is married to a rich socialite (Mike Vogel), but is an outcast from the other society ladies (as influenced by Hilly), because she was born into a working-class family and her husband is Hilly's ex-boyfriend. Also, unlike Hilly, Celia treats Minny with respect.
Skeeter writes a draft of the book, with Minny and Aibileen's stories in it, and sends it to Miss Stein (Mary Steenburgen), an editor for Harper & Row in New York City, New York. Miss Stein thinks there may be some interest in it, but requires at least a dozen more maids' contributions before it can become a viable book. Believing that the book will only be publishable during the Civil Rights movement, which she believes is a passing fad, Stein advises Skeeter to finish the book soon. No one comes forward, until Medgar Evers is assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, and Hilly's latest maid is brutally arrested (for attempting to pawn one of Hilly's rings, to pay for her twins' college tuition, after Hilly had refused to give her a loan). With racial tensions running high, the maids realize that Skeeter's book will give them an opportunity for their voices to be heard, and Skeeter suddenly has numerous stories to include. Minny shares one last story with Skeeter and Aibileen, which she calls the "Terrible Awful," to ensure that no one will reveal that the book was written about Jackson, Mississippi. As revenge for being fired and accused of stealing, Minny bakes a chocolate pie and delivers it to Hilly. After Hilly has finished two slices, Minny informs her that she has baked her own feces into the pie. Minny tells Aibileen and Skeeter that if they add that part into the book, Hilly will try to prevent anyone from figuring out that she made her eat human feces and will convince the town that the book is not about Jackson. The book is almost finished, except for Skeeter's own story of being brought up by Constantine. Skeeter manages to find out what had happened to Constantine, when her mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), finally explains that she reluctantly fired her in order to save face during a reception. Soon afterwards, feeling guilty about the incident since the Phelans are quite close to their help, Charlotte had sent Skeeter's brother to bring Constantine home from Chicago, Illinois, where she was living with her daughter Rachel, but he discovered that she had died, not long after leaving Jackson. However, Constantine's daughter forgives them knowing that the family they served genuinely love them.
The book is accepted for publication and is a success, much to the delight of Skeeter and the maids. She shares her royalties with each of the maids who contributed, and is offered a job with a publishing company in New York City. She tells her boyfriend about the job and the book. Revolted by her ideas of racial equality, he immediately breaks up with her. Later in the afternoon, Hilly hatches a plan to get rid of Aibileen as Elizabeth's help, by falsely accusing her of stealing silver. Elizabeth tries to defend Aibileen, but to no avail. Aibileen denounces Hilly as a godless woman and tells her that she will never have peace if she continues her vindictive ways, leaving her in limbo. As Aibileen tries to convince Hilly and Elizabeth of her innocence, Elizabeth's daughter, Mae Mobley, arrives and pleads with her not to go. Elizabeth is forced to accept the firing of Aibileen, and Mae Mobley cries by the window, shouting for Aibileen as she leaves to start a new life.
- Emma Stone as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a college graduate and aspiring writer. She is the main protagonist of the film.
- Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark, a black maid and Skeeter's good friend; the deuteragonist.
- Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook, the antagonist and the town's racist, snooty ringleader.
- Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, a brilliant cook, but with a smart mouth that has gotten her fired a lot of times; she is Aibileen's best friend and the tritagonist.
- Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, Minny's naive employer and Johnny's wife
- Allison Janney as Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter's mother
- Ahna O'Reilly as Elizabeth Leefolt, Aibileen's employer. She is very neglectful towards her children and is seen on one occasion hitting Mae Mobley.
- Chris Lowell as Stuart Whitworth, Skeeter's boyfriend and a senator's son
- Cicely Tyson as Constantine Bates, Skeeter's beloved childhood maid
- Mike Vogel as Johnny Foote, Hilly's ex-boyfriend and Celia's husband
- Sissy Spacek as Mrs. Walters, Hilly's mother
- Anna Camp as Jolene French, a friend of Hilly and Elizabeth
- Brian Kerwin as Robert Phelan, Skeeter's father
- Aunjanue Ellis as Yule May Davis, a maid fired by Hilly for pawning a ring she found in Holbrook house to pay for her children's education.
- Emma and Eleanor Henry as Mae Mobley Leefolt, Elizabeth's baby
- Ted Welch as William Holbrook, Hilly's husband
- LaChanze as Rachel, daughter of Constantine
- Mary Steenburgen as Elaine Stein, an editor for Harper & Row
- Leslie Jordan as Mr. Blackly
- Nelsan Ellis as Henry, the waiter
- Wes Chatham as Carlton Phelan, Skeeter's brother
- Tiffany Brouwer as Rebecca, Carlton's wife
- Kelsey Scot as Sugar Jackson, Minny's daughter
- David Oyelowo as Preacher Green
- Dana Ivey as Grace Higginbotham
- Ashley Johnson as Mary Beth Caldwell
In December 2009, Variety reported that Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, and Mark Radcliffe would produce a film adaptation of The Help, under their production company 1492 Pictures. Brunson Green of Harbinger Productions also co-produced. The film was written and directed by Stockett's childhood friend, Tate Taylor, who optioned film rights to the book before its release.
The first casting news for the production came in March 2010, was reported that Stone was attached to play the role of Skeeter Phelan. Other actors were since cast, including Davis as Aibileen; Howard as Hilly Holbrook, Jackson's snooty town ringleader; Janney as Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter's mother; and Lowell as Stuart Whitworth, Skeeter's boyfriend and a senator's son. Leslie Jordan appears as the editor of the fictional local newspaper, The Jackson Journal. Mike Vogel plays the character Johnny Foote. Octavia Spencer portrays Minny. A longtime friend of Stockett and Taylor, Spencer inspired the character of Minny in Stockett's novel and voiced her in the audiobook version.
Filming began in July 2010 and extended through October. The town of Greenwood, Mississippi, was chosen to portray 1960s-era Jackson, and producer Green said he had expected to shoot "95 percent" of the film there. Parts of the film were also shot in the real-life Jackson, as well as in nearby Clarksdale and Greenville. One of the few locations that existed in 1963 Jackson, the book and the film is Jackson landmark Brent's Drugs, which dates to 1946. Other locations that can still be found in Jackson include the New Capitol Building and the Mayflower Cafe downtown. Scenes set at the Jackson Journal office were shot in Clarksdale at the building which formerly housed the Clarksdale Press Register for 40 years until April 2010.
The Help was the most significant film production in Mississippi since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) "Honestly, my heart would be broken if it were set anywhere but Mississippi", Stockett wrote in an e-mail to reporters. In order to convince producers to shoot in Greenwood, Tate Taylor and others had previously come to the town and scouted out locations; at his first meeting with DreamWorks executives, he presented them with a photo album of potential filming spots in the area. The state's tax incentive program for filmmakers was also a key enticement in the decision.
The original song is "The Living Proof" by Mary J. Blige. The soundtrack was released on July 26, 2011, through Geffen Records.
- "The Living Proof" Mary J. Blige 5:57
- "Jackson" Johnny Cash and June Carter 5:28
- "Sherry" Frankie Valli 5:35
- "I Ain't Never" Webb Pierce 1:56
- "Victory Is Mine" Dorothy Norwood 3:47
- "Road Runner" Bo Diddley 2:48
- "Hallelujah I Love Her So" Ray Charles 2:35
- "The Wah-Watusi" The Orlons 2:32
- "Personality" Lloyd Price 10:29
- "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" Bob Dylan 3:38
- "Let's Twist Again" Chubby Checker 2:19
- "Don't Knock" Mavis Staples 2:30
On October 13, 2010, Touchstone Pictures and DreamWorks gave the film a release date of August 12, 2011. On June 30, 2011, the film's release date was rescheduled two days earlier to August 10, 2011.
The Help received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregators Rotten Tomatoes reported that 76% of 197 professional critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 7/10. The site's consensus stated, "Though arguably guilty of glossing over its racial themes, The Help rises on the strength of its cast—particularly Viola Davis, whose performance is powerful enough to carry the film on its own." Metacritic, a review aggregator which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 62 based on 41 reviews. CinemaScore polls reported that the average grade moviegoers gave the film was an A+ on an A+ to F scale.
Tom Long from The Detroit News remarked about the film: "Appealling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing, The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days." Connie Ogle of The Miami Herald gave the film three out of four stars and said it "will make you laugh, yes, but it can also break your heart. In the dog days of August moviegoing, that's a powerful recommendation."
More on the mixed side was Karina Longworth of The Village Voice: "We get a fairly typical Hollywood flattening of history, with powerful villains and disenfranchised heroes." Rick Gloen of The Globe and Mail, giving the film two out of four stars, said: "Typically, this sort of film is an earnest tear-jerker with moments of levity. Instead, what we have here is a raucous rib-tickler with occasional pauses for a little dramatic relief." Referring to the film as a "big, ole slab of honey-glazed hokum", The New York Times noted that "save for Ms. Davis's, however, the performances are almost all overly broad, sometimes excruciatingly so, characterized by loud laughs, bugging eyes, and pumping limbs."
Some of the negative reviews criticized the film for its inability to match the book's level of greatness. Chris Hewitt of the St. Paul Pioneer Press said about the film: "Some adaptations find a fresh, cinematic way to convey a book's spirit but The Help doesn't."
Many critics praised the performances of Davis and Spencer. Wilson Morales of Blackfilm.com gave the movie three out of four stars and commented, "With powerful performances given by Viola Davis and scene stealer Octavia Spencer, the film is an emotionally, moving drama that remains highly entertaining." David Edelstein from New York magazine commented that, "The Help belongs to Viola Davis."
Ida E. Jones, the national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, released an open statement criticizing "The Help" in An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help. The letter stated that "despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers." The group of scholars accused both the book and the film of insensitive portrayals of African-American vernacular, a nearly uniform depiction of black men as cruel or absent, and a failure to acknowledge the sexual harassment that many black women endured in their white employers' homes. Jones concluded by saying that "The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women's lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment."
Roxane Gay of literary web magazine The Rumpus articulated reasons the film might be offensive to African Americans, mentioning the film's use of racial Hollywood stereotypes like the Magical Negro and Gone With the Wind's Mammy.
The film grossed $169,708,112 in North America, and $41,900,000 in other territories, for a worldwide total of $211,608,112.
In North America, on its opening day (Wednesday, August 10, 2011), it topped the box office with $5.54 million. It then added $4.33 million on Thursday, declining only 21 percent, for a two-day total to $9.87 million. On its first weekend, the film grossed $26.0 million, coming in second place behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, during its second weekend, the film jumped to first place with $20.0 million, declining only 23 percent, the smallest drop among films playing nationwide. The film crossed the $100 million mark on its 21st day of release, becoming one of only two titles in August 2011 that achieved this. On its fourth weekend (Labor Day three-day weekend), it became the first film since Inception (2010), to top the box-office charts for three consecutive weekends. Its four-day weekend haul of $19.9 million was the fourth largest for a Labor-day weekend. Notably, The Help topped the box office for 25 days in a row. This was the longest uninterrupted streak since The Sixth Sense (35 days), which was also a late summer release, in 1999.
To promote the film, TakePart.com hosted a series of three writing contests. Rebecca Lubin, of Mill Valley, California, who has been a nanny for nearly two decades won the recipe contest. Darcy Pattison's "11 Ways to Ruin a Photograph" won "The Help" Children's Story Contest with her story about a tenacious young girl who refuses to take a good photograph while her father is away "soldiering". After being chosen by guest judge and children's-book author Lou Berger, the story was professionally illustrated. The final contest was about "someone who inspired you." Genoveva Islas-Hooker charmed guest judge Doc Hendley (founder of Wine to Water) with her story, A Heroine Named Confidential. A case manager for patients with HIV, Islas-Hooker was consistently inspired by one special individual who never gave up the fight to live.
- Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone both have gone onto play Gwen Stacy from the Spider-Man comics. Howard in the 2007 film, Spider-Man 3 and Stone in the 2012 reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man.