Written & Directed by Tate Taylor
L to R: Aibileen, Minny, Skeeter, Hilly
Emma Stone … Skeeter
Viola Davis … Aibileen
Octavia Spencer … Minny
Bryce Dallas Howard … Hilly
Jessica Chastain – Celia
Our small town cinema had queues outside, was virtually full on a cold Monday (400 +), the audience was 80-90% female, and it got loud clapping over the credits … very rare in Britain. Viola Davis was widely expected to walk the Golden Globe for her portrayal of Aibileen, but lost at the end to Meryl Streep.
Aibileen (Viola Davis)
The story and film’s centre is segregation in early 60s Mississippi from the female viewpoint. All the major parts are female. Men are peripheral. Minny’s abusive husband LeRoy is never even seen. The film uses the words of 1962 Mississippi, coloured and negro. I’m uncomfortable using them, and African-American comes from years later, so I’ll go late 60s and use black and white.
Segregation is hard to understand from a distance. There was something slightly smug about British reactions, you know, ‘we would never have been so nasty’ is an easy statement when you had neither the background nor the opportunity. I know it’s hard to avoid, but I’ll try. Britain has had plenty of racism, we all had comic books about cannibals and cooking pots, and golliwog toys, but never anything remotely so institutionalized. There was never any legally-enshrined racism. The Mississippi guidelines that Skeeter has acquired were a total surprise to me. In my Southern English hometown, there were only three or four black kids when I was growing up. Racial and religious intolerance tends to become a problem as numbers of each race or faith approach equal numbers in a society, which happened later in Britain, and then in restricted areas. There was no visible prejudice back then, just interest (the local racial prejudice was intense enough, but reserved for Romany people). We were told that if there was one black ancestor ten generations back, then the lottery of genes meant that a black child could be born to two white parents, which is why we had a few in the neighbourhood. All the black kids were three or four years older than me. The penny didn’t drop till I was heading out to Washington DC airport with a black limo driver twenty years ago. He asked me where I was from. I told him I was born in Bournemouth and he told me he was in Win-Ton (in Bournemouth) in 1944. He said it was the nicest place he’d ever been (a major surprise to me) and the first time he went anywhere with no colour prejudice, except from his fellow Americans … black troops and white troops were only allowed into town on different days. With a smile he told me that the women of Win-ton were SO friendly. I realized that the ten generations story may not have been true. I told him about it and he laughed so hard he had to stop the car to wipe his eyes, and said ‘No comment.’
Skeeter (Emma Stone)
Kathryn Stockett’s Afterword to the novel goes to the dichotomy at the core of the story: that white children were raised by black maids, and there was deep love felt in both directions, but then those kids grew up and regarded black people as both inferior and repugnant. Central to the story is Hilly’s attempt to make it illegal by statute for black people to use bathrooms in white domestic houses. One of the most powerful scenes is Minny being expected to walk outside in a tornado to use the outside toilet. Blues and soul musicians who visited Europe in the early 60s have all recounted their surprise that there was no segregation in dining, toilet facilities or hotels. Racism there may have been, but that angle just didn’t exist (though it did in the outposts of the British Empire). A South African friend once had a long discussion with me on the subject … he told me that he was raised entirely by a black nursemaid. He loved her as much as his mother, and saw a lot more of her. At thirty, he was still in weekly contact with his old nurse. He couldn’t believe that he was supposed to change his attitude as soon as he became an adult (which is why he’d left South Africa). Skeeter in the film is like my friend … she can’t do that, yet all the women around her have done so.
What the film makes clear is the love was two-way. Aibileen is deeply hurt when she discover’s Mae Mobley, the white child she’s caring for, has severe nappy rash (sorry diaper rash) because her mother doesn’t change her for the ten hours a day that Aibileen isn’t there. Aibileen has looked after seventeen white babies, which indicates that she’s not a ‘general maid’ stuck with one family, but more a specialized nursemaid. Even ‘maid’ is a word we wouldn’t have used in Britain after World War Two except in the houses of the aristocracy. Go back to the origins … an umarried woman. So calling a woman in her fifties a ‘maid’ is the same as calling a man in his fifties ‘a boy’ which of course they did too.
Celia (Jessica Chastain) and Minny
The social snapshot shows seriously under-employed white women. Their lives are an extension of the High School movie Queen Bitch / Queen Bee role (Hilly) bullying everyone else. That’s alien in Britain too, because we never had that kind of high school set-up, so female bullying, where it existed, had to wait till later, for a workplace situation. Skeeter, seeking a job, stands out immediately. The character they all hate is Celia (Jessica Chastain) who is married to Johnny, the local Southern aristocrat in the big house. The close adult black / white relationship is Minny and Celia. Celia hugs, touches, asks to sit and eat with Minny. Celia doesn’t have the automatic racism built in. Why? Minnie explains that the other women hate Celia because they think she “stole” Johnny from Hilly. Celia is relieved and says something like, ‘So they don’t hate ME, they hate what they think I did?’ Minny says honestly, ‘No, they hate you cos yo po’ white trash.’ In other words, she has no history of mistress / servant relationship. Minny (Octavia Spencer) has one of the most expressive faces to grace the big screen.
Minny (Octavia Spencer)
Minny and Aibileen are a wonderful pair. One rebellious, sassy; the other guarded, worried, more cautious.
I checked the book for the scene where Skeeter goes to Aibileen’s house for the first time to persuade her to tell her story. Without being able to cross-reference the film, it seems to me word-for-word with the book. That’s good, as no dialogue in the book needs improving! A point someone made was that the dialogue was authentically Mississippi 1963, and you could tell because ‘y’all’ appears only three or four times in the film (including ‘Y’all two …’) which is right for the era … and reinforces the observation linguists have made about the deliberate spread and increase in the use of ‘y’all’ in the last thirty years. Some British friends had trouble with following the dialogue. I had trouble with Brokeback Mountain (one of the worst recorded films ever made) but this was all clear to me.
To sum up, there are five towering female acting performances. Jessica Chastain was last seen in The Debt, which couldn’t be more different. The Help flows seamlessly. I was feeling uncomfortable about the plot five minutes from the end where it looked as if we were going to end up in Happy Valley with Minny, Johnny & Celia in domestic bliss; and the villain Hilly had been sent packing with a flea in her ear by Skeeter’s mom (Allison Janney) as well as getting it from her own mom (Sissy Spacek). I was thinking, ‘No, these bastards wouldn’t let them get away with it that lightly …’ and of course they didn’t. The story ended right enough (though I think in reality it would have been worse).
Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard)
We have fixed time pointers in the story. The book has AUGUST 1962 printed on the first chapter, which is our starting point with Skeeter returning from the University of Mississippi (“Old Miss”). The Medgar Evans murder was June 12th 1963, the Kennedy assassination November 22nd 1963.
When music is ‘soundtrack’ it doesn’t matter whether it dates from 1963 or last week. So at the start we hear Jackson by Johnny Cash & June Carter. The song was a hit in their version in 1967. In fact it was written in 1963, and recorded by the Kingston Trio, but it was obscure. This isn’t an anachronism, because it’s a scene setter and none of the characters is “listening to it in the story.” I would argue though that the song has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the movie except for its title. Even the particular Southern ambience of the song doesn’t fit the society ladies of Jackson. But that title coincidence was pretty irresistible.
When characters are listening to music in the story, then it can be an anachronism. The Orlons Wah-Watusi from 1962 is playing in the diner. Fine, juke box operators kept popular discs on. An unlikely piece is Hilly driving along listening to Let’s Twist Again by Chubby Checker. Eight-track wasn’t available until 1965, so she’s listening to radio. This was a huge hit in the USA in 1961. It’s after the Kennedy assassination by some time, because the book’s been edited, printed and distributed (which normally takes a year in reality, but we’d assume far less in the story), so we must already be well into 1964. Oldies radio wasn’t the thing. It reeks a little of the “it’s all old early 60s stuff’ that blights compilation albums.
I like checking anachronisms. One says they were surprised Skeeter was using Liquid Paper in 1963. But it was invented in 1951 by Mike Nesmith’s (of the Monkees) mother. Apparently the car is six months later than the movie, but to me it looks ‘about right’ being less fussy about cars than music.