Despite the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, institutionalized indenture existed in the southern United States throughout the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The black “help” were not simply housekeepers, but nannies to the children. In many cases, they were de facto mothers to neglected children at the expense of their own families.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, The Help stars Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent graduate of Ole Miss who comes home to care for her ailing mother (Allison Janney), only to discover that her beloved maid (played by the wonderful Cicely Tyson) is no longer working for her family after 27 years. While all of the other girls in her social circle have married and had children, Skeeter is more concerned with beginning a career as a writer. Despite her lack of domestic skills, Skeeter gets a job at the local paper writing a column about household cleaning secrets. But when Skeeter turns to her friends’ maid, Abilene (Viola Davis), for assistance with the column, she gets the idea of writing a book about the real-life stories of “the help.”
Now, this is a world where any self-respecting white family—even those of modest means—employs black women as domestic help. Abilene, a woman of about 50, works for the Leefolt family. She genuinely loves the chubby little Leefolt daughter she’s currently raising, just as she has loved all the other children in her care. Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), the young girl’s mother, is strictly a hands off parent, and leaves all that to Abilene. While she doesn’t hold ant specific ill-will toward Abilene and other blacks, she considers them inferior.
In spite of fears that talking about their employers would get them fired and unable to find other jobs, Abilene and her sassy friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) agree to interviews. If Aibileen is the strong, dignified black woman, Minny is a loose cannon, who can’t just brush things off. Known for her cooking, Minny has worked for senile old Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) for decades, and now works for her daughter, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s the baddest, bitchiest, stone cold racist in town. Understandably, Minny has grown bitter and resentful. It’s only a matter of time before she’s fired. In one of the film’s best scenes, the ever creative Minny is able to give Hilly a “taste of her own medicine.
Adding some extra flavor to the story is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a bubbly Southern belle who is an outcast from polite society and has, for some reason, none of the attitudes toward “the help” that she’s supposed to have. Newly married and woefully inadequate in the kitchen, she needs a maid who can help out in that department. The relationship that develops between she and Minny—both social outcasts for different reasons—is a sweet one.
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer both turn in wonderful performances; imbuing their characters with small touches—a sigh here, a raised eyebrow there—that make them seem real and believable. Abilene works at staying upbeat and positive, but she carrying around tremendous sadness over the death of her son. Though angry, Minny is a good hearted person. Director Tate Taylor—adapting he bestselling novel of the same name by childhood friend Kathryn Stockett—wisely avoids allowing Hilly to have a sudden conversion. This is a person who thinks nothing of allowing a black maid to take care of her children, but is so disgusted by the thought of her guests having to share a toilet with someone of color that she tries to pass an initiative requiring all households to build a separate bathroom (which is really just a glorified outhouse) for their maids. At the end of the film, she’s still that same person. Not everyone sees the light. Some people are just racist.
Shown at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this 1080p transfer is a generally solid. A nice color palette is used to set various moods. Images are crisp with well balanced color and definitive resolution that provide a transparent and lustrous quality. Skin tones are natural, and black are deep and dynamic. Contrast is stable which delivers bright whites and vivid primary colors. The exterior shots and earth tones of the southern landscapes exhibit excellent delineation with viable long range acuity. Grain is visible, in light, even layers that provides a filmic texture.
The front oriented DTS-HD Master Audio sound mix features dialogue is full. High level detail is readily apparent as subtle sound effects, music and voices are rendered with superior clarity and depth. There is little need for discrete surround activity however the film’s music utilized the entire soundstage to provide a satisfying sense of dimension.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
Along with a Standard DVD and Digital Copy, the following special features are included:
- Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film (23:25) We get short interviews with from writer/director Tate Taylor, author Kathryn Stockett, producer Brunson Green, executive producer Chris Columbus, production designer Mark Ricker, home owner Jack Johnson, and actors Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Sissy Spacek. Further it looks at the lifelong friendship between Stockett and Tate, the book’s origins and development, locations and influences, etc.
- In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi (11:51) Featuring director Taylor, Octavia Spencer, and a group of women who inspired “the help” characters in the film, this piece provides short but interesting insight.
- Five Deleted Scenes (9:36) “A Senator’s Son” (2:11), “Humiliated” (2:02), “Johnny’s Home” (1:46), “A Book about Jackson” (1:04) and “Keep on Walkin’” (2:05). Most of these offer minor bits of character exposition.
- Music Video for “The Living Proof” by Mary J. Blige.