A young writer and a housemaid secretly collaborate on a book exposing the treatment of hired help by their employers in 1960s Mississippi, in this adaptation of the bestselling novel. The Dreamworks release was nominated for four Academy wards, including Best Picture, and won one Oscar.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
The middle aged woman in the maid's uniform is paid 95 cents an hour, and works six days a week, eight to four, to clean house, do laundry, cook, shop for groceries, and most importantly care for a toddler, whose distracted mother has little time or patience to mind the little girl herself.
While the importance of caregivers can be a hot-button parenting issue, it is made even hotter by this woman's environment: Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.
The climate of the Deep South during the Civil Rights Era was fraught with distrust, anger and fear - sometimes right in the very homes for whom the hired help could seem like extended family. In the midst of this social tension were tiny children too young to understand such arbitrary social divisions and the violence these divisions could engender.
Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller "The Help" tells the story of a young woman who decided to write an expose about the conditions that maids and caregivers face in their employers' homes. It examines the irony of African American women raising white children who love them - yet those same children, when grown, cannot show that love or respect without butting up against the state's Jim Crow laws, and the enormous peer pressure to keep the races separate (and hardly equal).
Aspiring author Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) has returned home to Jackson from earning her journalism degree at Ole Miss and lands a job at the Jackson Journal. To her friends in the Junior League, Skeeter is something of an anomaly - she's single and childless, she has a job! It's certainly a sore point for Skeeter's mother Charlotte (Allison Janney), who would love to see her daughter date, let alone get married.
Skeeter's outspokenness may have something to do with the single part, but she is not afraid to speak up against her friends who talk disrespectfully of the hired help right in front of them.
Skeeter is particularly sensitive about the place of caregivers because her own family's employee Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has quit. Skeeter cannot understand why the woman who raised her would suddenly leave, and her parents refuse to speak of it. But her departure leaves a hole in Skeeter's heart.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) has cared for 17 children, and clearly loves the little girl Mae Mobley, whom she teaches is "kind ... smart ... important."
Aibileen knows her boundaries and keeps to them. But those boundaries are continually being pushed further.
Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the self-righteous leader of the Junior League, is promoting legislation, endorsed by the White Citizen's Council, that would require all white homes to install outdoor lavatories for the black help, so that the races will not have to share the same bathroom. She is convinced that blacks carry different diseases from whites, and believes a new law is necessary "to protect our children."
Upset by Constantine's departure, Skeeter decides she wants to write an expose about the lives of maids in Jackson, and asks Aibileen to help her. Aibileen at first refuses, concerned it will bring nothing but trouble.
SKEETER: "A book like this has never been written before."
AIBILEEN: "'Cause they's a reason. I do this with you, I might as well burn my
own house down."
It's not just revenge from racists that is a concern: Under Mississippi state law, publishing anything that promotes equality among races could bring imprisonment.
But Aibileen finds courage in her church, where Preacher Green (David Oyelowo) tells of Moses questioning God's call to free the Israelites: "Courage isn't just about being brave," he says. "Courage is daring to do what is right, in spite of the weakness of our flesh." He says the righteous must be prepared to put themselves in harm's way "for your fellow man - your brother, your sister, your neighbor, your friend and your enemy."
Aibileen agrees to tell her story to Skeeter - her experiences, emotions, the hurts and slights.
AIBILEEN: "No one had ever asked me what it felt like to be me. Once I told the truth about that, I felt free."
Aibileen also opens up her journal which she has kept - privately - about her life, in which she has written of her heart ache. Skeeter's prospective book becomes a vehicle for her to express her own literary voice.
Hilly puts up with her mother's longtime maid Minny (Octavia Spencer), renowned for her cooking, but sees Minny's use of her personal toilet as grounds for firing.
Minny is also at first reluctant to collaborate with Skeeter on the book. But, like Aibileen, Minny turns around and begins telling her stories - including a cruel bit of revenge she has inflicted upon Hilly for firing her.
Minny takes a job at another social outcast, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a blonde bombshell who has dared to marry one of Jackson's eligible bachelors out from under a Junior League member. Minny teaches Celia to cook, and suffers none of the disdain that her previous employer had heaped upon her.
As racial tensions in Jackson heat up with the killing of a civil rights activist, other maids find similar courage to finally tell their stories.
The publication of the book, as one would expect, creates a firestorm - certainly among those elements of Jackson society that can read between the lines of the not-so-carefully-camouflaged stories.
The anonymity with which Skeeter, Aibeleen, Minny and the other maids had sought to right a social wrong is not kept for long - and it is at the point of being found out that Skeeter learns the extent of her actions - as well as the courage necessary to have carried them out.
Aibileen: "All you do is scare and lie to get what you want. You a godless woman. Ain't you tired, Miss Hilly? Ain't you tired?"
The cast of "The Help" - one of the finest amassed for any film this year - splendidly performs the difficult task of making conditions that seem so far back in time vivid and current. The outrage that the film stirs is less about the government dictates that ruled Southern society as the moral weakness that kept citizens toeing the line, until the bravest took a stand against discrimination and disrespect.
In an era when the federal government was forced to promote desegregation, it is telling in the story that the means to affect change comes from outside the South - a New York City book publisher, who is Jewish! - but the action is stirred by two native-born Mississippi women, diametrically opposed, who each believes their actions are needed to right a wrong. Perhaps the defining characteristic that separates Hilly and Aibileen is not color or status, but ignorance.
Kathryn Stockett shopped her debut novel to dozens of publishers, and received dozens of rejections, before Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of hers growing up in Jackson in the 1970s, sent a manuscript around with visions of turning it into a film.
Taylor and his friend, producer Brunson Green, acquired the film rights before Penguin bought the book, which ultimately spent more than 100 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.
Arizona native Emma Stone (Skeeter) appeared in such TV series as "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody," Malcolm in the Middle," and "Drive," before assuming roles in the films "Superbad," "The House Bunny," "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," "Paper Man," "Zombieland," "Easy A," "Friends With Benefits," and "Crazy, Stupid, Love." She is starring the the upcoming "The Amazing Spider-Man."
Tony Award-winning actress Viola Davis received an Academy Award nomination - and won the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards - for her performance as Aibileen in "The Help." She was previously nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "Doubt."
Her other credits include "Out of Sight," "Traffic," "Far from Heaven," "Antwone Fisher," "Solaris," "Syriana," "World Trade Center," "Nights in Rodanthe," "Madea Goes to Jail," "State of Play," "Law Abiding Citizen," "Knight and Day," "Eat Pray Love," and another Best Picture nominee, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close."
Olivia Spencer met the director Tate Taylor in 1996 when they were both working as production assistants on the film "A Time to Kill." They both then moved out to L.A. and were roommates for several years as they pursued their fortune.
After 15 years of small roles in films like "Being John Malkovich," "Coach Carter," "The Soloist" and "Dinner for Schmucks," and appearances on such TV series as "The Chronicle," "LAX," "Ugly Betty" and "The Big Bang Theory," Spencer became a star with her performance as Minny in "The Help." She won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
According to Taylor, Stockett modeled the character of Minny after Spencer, so there was no other actress who could play her.
Juilliard graduate Jessica Chastain was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year for "The Help." Her other film roles include Al Pacino's "Wilde Salome," Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," "Coriolanus," "Take Shelter," "The Debt" and "Texas Killing Fields."
Viola Davis poses backstage with the award for outstanding actress in a motion picture for "The Help" at the 43rd NAACP Image Awards on Feb. 17, 2012, in Los Angeles.
Octavia Spencer accepts the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture for "The Help," during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
George Clooney (winner of the Best Actor Award for "The Descendants") and Viola Davis (winner of the Best Actress Award for "The Help") pose in the press room during the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards held at The Hollywood Palladium on January 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
The cast of "The Help" pose in the press room with their award for Outstanding Performance By A Cast In A Motion Picture during the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Actress Sissy Spacek poses in the press room after "The Help" won the Screen Actors Guild's ensemble award, January 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
From left: Producers Michael Barnathan and Chris Columbus, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, director/screenwriter Tate Taylor and producer Brunson Green pose with the award for outstanding motion picture for "The Help," in the press room at the 43rd NAACP Image Awards held at The Shrine Auditorium on Feb. 17, 2012, in Los Angeles.
Octavia Spencer accepts the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "The Help" during the 84th Annual Academy Awards held at the Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California.