Breaking down Tate Taylor’s award-winner The Help (2011), proved challenging. The same issue making the piece hard to analyze, simultaneously makes it extraordinary. Taylor takes remarkable care of his characters, giving each and everyone a defined and meaningful arc. So, what’s the problem?
The main issue (for me, not the film) is that The Help presents more than one character fighting for the title of Leading Lady.
Initially, it’s in-your-face clear that Aibileen (Viola Davis) is our protagonist. She opens the film, and spends it telling her story. She even uses voice over. So WHY does a majority of loglines out there open with “When a white journalist…”, or something along those lines, clearly implying that Skeeter (Emma Stone) is our hero?
Is The Help a story about a white journalist stirring up trouble by writing a book from the perspective of the black help, OR is it about a black maid who finds the courage to tell her story?
You could even present a third, slightly more atypical, option. Could it be – work with me here – that the book itself is our hero? Is The Help about the writing of a book on the lives of black maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi? Hence following the ups and downs on its road towards publication.
Whatever the initial intent, fact is, the film is yours to view as you wish. My take is that Aibileen is, after all, the hero of The Help. Why? Skeeter’s got more screen-time, her own love story and presents a clearer goal. She is pro-active. So why not her?
Because Aibileen has a greater, and more defined, arc than Skeeter does. Skeeter is, from the start, gutsy enough to challenge the ideals of society, clearly opposing the set gender rules of the 60’s. Aibileen has something to learn from her.
So, now that we have our hero, let’s dig in.
Sequence A: Routine Interrupted (17.54mins)
01.10 White hand, taking notes.
01.24 Aibileen gives interview about life as a maid.
02.25 Aibileen’s work; raising white babies, “You is smart, you is kind, you is important”.
04.10 Skeeter drives. Aibileen (V.O): “Ms Skeeter. No man and no babies”.
05.00 Skeeter gets job at Jackson Journal, writing Miss Myrna-column.
07.16 Hilly’s measuring Minny’s toilet paper. Late for bridge.
09.00 Potty training, Elizabeth pulls girl off toilet.
10.00 Bridge Club: In the kitchen; Aibileen and Minny make fun of white women.
11.00 Bridge Club: Skeeter’s back. Sticks out amongst a sea of housewives.
12.35 Skeeter asks Elizabeth if Aibileen can help with column. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with her work”
13.20 Celia calls, looking for maid. Hilly talks smack.
15.45 Hilly announces bathroom-bill. Skeeter: “Maybe we should just build you a bathroom outside Hilly”.
16.30 Aibileen agrees to help Skeeter with Miss Myrna-column.
This is the point where Aibileen is pulled from her every-day work and chooses to enter a collaboration alongside a white woman. A choice that will ignite the entire storyline of The Help.
Initially, I had trouble picking out the first sequence break, thinking that the moment (see below) Skeeter calls her editor saying “I’d like to write something from the point of view of the help”, was the catalyst/call to adventure/whatever you want to call the initial spark that sets off a story. The reason for this, again, was rooted in my confusion about the main character. That would have been a clear break, had it been Skeeter’s story.
The first act is packed with important information, giving us beat after beat of skillfully crafted hints of what is to come. In just a few minutes, we encounter almost every relevant character. Obviously, Aibileen and Skeeter have been introduced, alongside the main antagonist, Hilly. Nothing special about that, but what’s intriguing is that we’ve also met a ton of minor characters, without being confused about it. They’ve even briefly mentioned Stuart, who doesn’t turn up as a character until about an hour into the film.
On top of that, a lot of future plot points have been hinted at during Bridge Club. Hilly’s mentioned the bathroom bill, Celia’s going to need a maid, Skeeter’s showed her first sign of going against Hilly “maybe we should build you a bathroom outside Hilly”, etc.
A small beat, barely noticeable and very overlook-able, between Aibileen and Minny deserves to be highlighted. Minny carries a white person’s TV, leaving the cords dragging on the floor, and Aibileen, admonishingly, picks them up for her. This may seem insignificant. Look again.
What does it tell us? It shows that Minny, slightly careless, doesn’t always think before she acts. Aibileen does. And does so for Minny as well. We hadn’t been too surprised seeing Minny write an angry book about the white ladies, but for our hero, the always careful Aibileen, it’s an enormous step. She has a long road ahead of her.
This tiny beat further shows that Aibileen’s care for Minny is leaning towards the maternal. Why that is significant, I’ll return to in a minute.
Sequence B: The Inner Dispute (23mins)
19.30 Skeeter’s sick mother disapproves of her lifestyle and new job.
22.40 Skeeter finds out Constantine was fired. “She raised me!”
23.30 Constantine flashback: “Every day you’re not dead in the ground, when you wake up in the morning, you’re gonna have to make some decisions”
26.00 Skeeter calls editor: “I’d like to write something from the point of view of the help.”
28.30 Aibileen’s asked to be interviewed for the book. Interrupted.
32.45 Hilly fires Minny for using inside bath.
33.30 Aibileen uses outside bath, hurries out to take baby girl: “You my real mama, Aibee”
35.20 Minny won’t tell Aibileen where she’s headed, carrying chocolate pie. “Y’all just mind you own!”
36.15 Aibileen declines Skeeter’s offer, terrified, but takes her number.
37.20 Skeeter reads Jackson’s laws – writing the book would be illegal.
38.00 Aibileen hears Minny get beaten over the phone, looks at Skeeter’s phone number.
39.30 Aibileen listens to sermon; “Love is to be prepared to put yourself in harm’s way for your fellow man”.
We’re closing in on what our story really is about: the writing of a book. A book our main character isn’t quite ready to write yet. It’s too dangerous, too scary and maybe not worth the risk. This sequence centers around our hero debating whether the journey she’s been offered is worth embarking on.
Let me return to my previous statement about the significance of Aibileen’s love for Minny. Aibileen has already declined Skeeter’s offer, ruling the risk NOT worth taking.
Aibileen listens to her best friend, the person she should care for and look after, being beaten for breaking the rules of the white. Because Minny is a black maid in Jackson, working under awful conditions, she can’t afford to leave a man who’s beating her. And Aibileen can’t do shit about it. Or can she?
Aibileen is hesitating, looking at Skeeter’s number. But she can’t build up the courage,
The pastor at her church talks of what it means to love. She loves Minny, we’ve seen that. So when Aibileen hears that “Love is to be prepared to put yourself in harm’s way for your fellow man”, she comes to an understanding within herself that it IS worth the risk.
Sequence C: First Shot (15.36mins)
41.00 The first interview. “I thought I might write my stories down and read them too you”. Doesn’t answer questions about Elizabeth.
46.10 Yule Mae asks Hilly for loan, is shut down. “You’ll thank me one day”.
50.00 Minny, desperate for work, takes job at Celia’s. Celia announces pregnancy.
53.50 Hilly questions Skeeter about not having put bathroom-bill in newsletter.
54.20 Diner: Skeeter apologizes and agrees to go on Hilly’s set-up date with Stuart.
55.30 Yule Mae steals a ring from behind Hilly’s couch.
56.20 Aibileen wakes up baby-girl, she hasn’t been changed for 10 hours.
56.30 Aibileen: “I reckon I’m ready to talk about Miss Leefolt (Elizabeth) now”
As mentioned, The Help cares for the smaller characters as well as the big. This particular sequence spends a fairly large chunk of time developing secondary storylines. Each one, no matter how small, is strong enough to hold its own, containing complex characters, goals and arcs.
I’ve previously found, when movies do this to a certain extent, that it can bug me a little. “Get back to the story already, I don’t care about these guys!” This is NOT the case here.
Although The Help centers around racial equality, I would state that it has a broader purpose. It shows us that most people don’t fit into the category in which they are placed, making “prejudice” the main theme. Therefore, I conclude that the additional storylines fit perfectly within the frames of this film.
For instance, we have a story about a seemingly flighty girl from sugar ditch, who’s in fact unyieldingly open-minded (Celia). Then, there is Skeeter, a woman who’s got higher ambitions than becoming your typical 60’s housewife. We even see, although briefly, a rich white male (Johnny), who doesn’t mind pulling out the chair for a black maid. The Help is all about presenting presumptions, and then breaking them.
This phase is simultaneously big and small for our hero. At the start of the sequence, Aibileen is ready to start talking. She isn’t, however, ready to risk everything by actually telling stories on her own boss, Elizabeth. She’s decided to try, but now she needs to let it all go and try harder.
What makes her do so isn’t a huge event, but rather a reminder that things aren’t okay as they are. The baby girl hasn’t been changed for ten hours. Elizabeth isn’t even capable of being considerate towards her own child. Simple though it may be, it tips the scale for Aibileen.
Sequence D: Aim Higher (10.46mins)
56.30 Aibileen takes charge of interview: “Ms Leefolt should not be having babies. Write that down.”
57.20 Aibileen: “Treelore always said we were gonna have a writer in the family… Maybe it’s gonna be me”
57.30 Minny’s in, starts telling her stories. “We got to get more maids.”
60.30 Skeeter’s mom turns Skeeter into a housewife-copy in preparation for her date.
62.30 Bad date with Stuart, tells him off for being sexist.
64.20 Minny teaches Celia to cook.
66.20 Celia eats with Minny instead of by the dining table, “I’m fine right here, Minny”.
67.10 Celia suggests they burn the chicken a little to throw off suspicion. “Minny don’t burn chicken!”
There’s something wonderful about the relationship between Celia and Minny. One of them is prejudiced, but which one? Celia doesn’t see Minny as a “black maid”, but as a person, whilst Minny is very careful about upholding the rules of society; Celia isn’t supposed to eat with her in the kitchen, but by the dining-room table, like the white ladies do.
There’s also a rather drastic change taking place within Aibileen here. She doesn’t have a lot of screen-time, but she’s taking charge, and, step by step, becoming pro-active. She even orders a white person. She no longer just answers Skeeter’s questions, but demands she writes what she, Aibileen, wishes to tell.
Structurally, I do find this sequence slightly confusing. To me, it doesn’t have a clear ending. Why I chose to end it at this particular point is more due to the next beat being a definite midpoint-beat rather than this one being a clean-cut end-point.
Midpoint Sequence (12.04mins)
67.30 Editor likes the material, but “don’t send me anything else until you have more maids”
68.45 Aibileen: “Don’t give up on this Miss Skeeter!” – Tells the story of how racism killed her son.
70.30 Pool Party: Hilly tries to threaten Skeeter into putting bathroom-bill in newsletter.
73.40 Skeeter changes something in one of Hilly’s ads.
74.30 Skeeter goes on another date with Stuart, ends up kissing him.
78.30 People have dropped off their old commodes in Hilly’s garden, due to Skeeter’s ad.
We have two clear points that, combined, conduct the midpoint-sequence of The Help.
Aibileen, who’s been quite private thus far, is challenged to tell her deepest, darkest story (the death of her son), finally breaking down all inner walls. It’s no longer Skeeter pushing Aibileen, but the other way around. “Don’t give up on this Miss Skeeter!”
The second half of the midpoint-sequence, some of you may argue shouldn’t be in there, but I’ll battle you till I’m blue in the face on this one. Skeeter changing Hilly’s ad, openly defying her, changes everything. But isn’t that the midpoint of Skeeter’s story, not Aibileen’s? Yes and no.
It’s Skeeter’s beat, no question. She drops all pretense and lets the world know she stands against Hilly. This is also part of Aibileen’s midpoint, simply because it changes the course of her story as well. The always-careful Aibileen has to stand by and watch as her life project is put at risk. If Hilly’s looking for a way to bring Skeeter down, the risk is far greater that she’ll find out what they’re all up to.
Sequence E: From this Point Forwards (10.35mins)
79.30 Aibileen comforts baby girl after beating. “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”
80.10 Skeeter’s mom forbids her to watch civil-rights programs alongside the help.
81.10 A black civil-rights fighter is shot in the neighborhood.
83.30 Minny: ”What they gonna do if they catch us?” Aibileen: “We ain’t doing civil rights, we’re just telling stories like they really happened.”
84.30 Skeeter’s late on her column because she’s reading civil rights articles.
85.00 Celia has a miscarriage. Minny comforts her.
87.10 Celia buries the fetus under a rose bush, one amongst three.
88.00 Aibileen watches Yule Mae being brutally arrested for theft.
89.00 A black diner worker tells Skeeter to hurry on over to Aibileen’s house right away.
89.30 Aibileen’s house is full of maids, all ready to tell their stories.
There’s one major thing standing in the way of the book being published. There aren’t enough maids participating. They’ve already asked everyone. Like Aibileen, they all find it too risky.
Two events make the remaining maids realize that their lives are already at risk. A civil-rights activist is shot in their neighborhood. The threat is getting closer. Additionally, Yule Mae is brutally arrested because of racial laws. It’s no longer just the rebels who are at risk. Yule Mae is just like them; a maid who’s just trying to get her kids to college. Enough is enough.
Even Celia’s miscarriage is significant. Although it doesn’t necessarily bring the story forward, it takes it into a different, darker, direction. The flimsy blonde who doesn’t know how to cook is suddenly more than a cute, naive dimwit. Her story is more severe than that.
From now on, it’s life or death.
Sequence F: Risk It or Drop It (25.19mins)
90.00 Montage: maids telling stories.
91.20 Editor: book needs to be finished in 3 weeks. “And put something personal in there.”
92.00 Celia tries to befriend the others by bringing a chocolate pie, but is humiliated.
93.30 Minny tells Celia about Hilly’s jealousy towards her. Celia helps clean Minny’s wounds.
96.00 Kennedy assassination; mourning amongst both whites and blacks.
96.30 Minny: “Maybe we need us some insurance” Tells pie-story.
100.00 Aibileen and Skeeter think the story’s too risky. Minny: “Put it in or pull my parts out altogether.”
101.00 Benefit ball: Hilly wins chocolate pie and think Celia’s taunting her. Celia makes a drunken fool out of herself.
107.00 Celia’s ready to move. Minny tells her pie-story, “If you leave, then Miss Hilly’s done won the whole ball game. Then she done beaten me. And she’s done beat you.”
108.15 The book is typed and almost ready to go. Skeeter: “Only one story left to tell. Mine.”
108.40 The story of Constantine.
Where is Aibileen? Skeeter, Hilly, Minny and Celia get a ton of attention in this sequence, way more so than Aibileen. This almost made me lean towards the “the book is our hero”-theory, but I stay put in my decision. What happens to the book, and whether it gets published, is of vital importance to Aibileen’s success as well. So although we don’t see her much, everything is at stake for her.
The enemy is getting closer, the threat is growing larger and from this point on, we can either fail or succeed, but nothing in between.
Minny tells the shameful story of what she did to Miss Hilly. If it came out, it could get her killed. Skeeter dares put some of herself into the book. Celia’s about to give up, letting Hilly “win”. So much can go wrong now. We’ve reached the critical point where what they’ve been fighting for is right in front of their feet.
Sequence G: The Final Step (4.50mins)
115.15 Book in shop window. It’s published.
115.30 Minny and Aibileen receive their share of money from Skeeter. Minny burns chicken.
116.20 Hilly’s mother tell Hilly to read the book, “Sounds like Jackson, if you ask me.”
117.15 Grocery store: Aibileen and Minny sees someone reading the book. “There it is.”
117.45 Stuart leaves Skeeter for writing it. “You’re a selfish woman Skeeter.”
118.45 Elizabeth buys the book.
119.00 Skeeter’s mother reads.
119.15 Black maids in bunks laugh about the pie-story.
119.30 Hilly reads, screaming hysterically.
120.00 The white ladies gossip about the book. Hilly: “The book is not about Jackson! ”
A very short, but BIG sequence. They’ve done it. The book is published.
This doesn’t just affect the characters in it, but EVERYBODY. The book makes a difference on an international scale.
One beat in particular tells me that everything has changed. Previously, Minny has stated that no matter the situation “Minny doesn’t burn chicken”, but as an effect to the book coming out, she does. What used to be at the top of the list in the lives of these maids, isn’t any longer. Even Hilly, who stayed poised throughout the film, is showing her first sign of unraveling. Another drastic change.
Now that they’ve done what they set out to do, the goal is reached. There’s an enormous question hanging in the air. Will they get away with this? What are the consequences of what they’ve done?
Sequence H: Rewards and Consequences (17.16mins)
120.15 Hilly receives a check from Celia, addressed to “Two Slice Hilly”.
120.50 Hilly drives, disheveled. Drinking and smoking fanatically.
121.10 Skeeter receives job offer from New York-magazine.
121.30 Hilly, a mess, threatens Skeeter, who uses pie-story as insurance. Hilly: “That was NOT ME!”
123.00 Skeeter’s mom throws Hilly out; “You get that raggedy ass off my porch!”
124.30 Skeeter’s mom: “I have never been more proud of you.”
126.00 Minny meets Celia’s husband, who, instead of beating her, shows gratitude.
127.30 Celia’s prepared a perfect dinner for Minny. “You’ve got a job here for the rest of your life”
129.00 Aibileen (V.O): “That table of food gave Minny the strength she needed. She took her babies out from under Leroy, and never went back.”
129.40 Church: Aibileen and Minny are met by gratitude and praise. Everyone’s signed the book.
131.10 Aibileen and Minny show Skeeter the signed book. Skeeter: “I can’t just leave you two here.” Aibileen: “If bad things happen there’s nothing you can do about it. And now it’s for a reason we can be proud of… Go find your life Miss Skeeter.”
133.00 Aibileen’s fired.
135.20 Aibileen stands tall in front Hilly: “Ain’t you tired, Miss Hilly? Ain’t you tired?” Hilly breaks down.
136.00 Aibileen says goodbye to baby girl. “Remember what I taught you?” Girl: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”
136.50 Aibileen walks away from her life (V.O): ”My boy, Treelore, always say we were gonna have a writer in the family one day. I guess it’s gonna be me.”
As beautifully as they were presented in our first sequence, each storyline is tied together perfectly in the final one. Rewards and consequences are dealt out and each arc is completed.
Celia’s realized that the place she’s tried so hard to fit into isn’t a place she wants to be at. Instead of sucking up to Hilly, she sends a check addressed to “Two piece Hilly”. On top of showing complete disregard to whether Hilly likes her or not, she puts herself above Hilly by proving that she knows something that gives her control. A tiny scene, Celia’s not even in it, but a fantastic pay-off.
Hilly, the embodiment of “perfection”, is falling apart in front of our eyes. She is going so far to keep her dignity, that she loses every ounce of it.
Although the job-offer represents a clear reward for Skeeter, I wouldn’t claim it her biggest price. Neither is the signed book or the gratitude of the black community. A flashback shows her personal flaw from the very beginning, even from a young age. She doesn’t believe herself good enough because she was never able to be her mother. Therefore, her biggest pay-off is her mother telling her; “Courage sometimes skips a generation. Thank you for bringing it back to our family,” and stating “I’ve never been more proud of you.” The words she’s been longing to hear her entire life.
Minny, who sees no value in her own existence, is the honorary guest at a private dinner party, prepared for her only. A white woman has stayed up all night, cooking for her. A white man pulls out her chair, offering her a life-long job there, and adding the small, yet remarkable “if you want”. Her life is her choice. The realization of this is her reward. She dares leave her husband, choosing something better.
Sadly, I can’t go into detail about every single character and the finale of their journey, but, as you know, there’s one left.
Aibileen is left speechless when faced with an entire community gathered to thank her. Neither gratitude nor the prospect of being considered “brave” is comprehensible to her. But let’s not forget that, along with her rewards, Aibileen suffers awful consequences for her choices. The Help doesn’t have an altogether “happy-ending”.
What’s lovely is that the journey she’s traveled throughout the film has prepared Aibileen for said consequences. Had she been fired at the start of the film, she would’ve reckoned it a travesty. Now, she welcomes it, even though leaving a beloved child behind in a cruel world goes against her very nature.
Taken care of others her entire life, Aibileen, for the first time, considers herself. In the opening scene, Aibileen’s asked “Did you ever dream of being something else?” Aibileen nods, but doesn’t even dare answer, since the answer would be unthinkable.
It’s not unthinkable anymore.
Now, walking away from everything that was her life, she states “My boy, Treelore, always said there was gonna be a writer in the family. I guess it’s gonna be me.”
She’s still got a long road ahead, quite literally in the final image, but she’s ready to walk it.
Camilla Beskow is a screenwriter, and former student at the Gotland based film school Storyutbildningen. Among her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth and Good Will Hunting.