The Help is about race, yes; it even has a handful of superficial narrative parallels with Do The Right Thing. (Again, jumpsuit/wetsuit. Maybe even spacesuit.) After all, The Help also shows close personal relationships between black people and white people, growing out of employment, built over years, that end in cathartic responses that offend, or wound, or mortify white employers. A black maid in The Help literally feeds her own [excrement] to her hateful, bigoted boss. And contrary to the frustrated reminder Mookie issues Sal after the fire about the fact that he'll be compensated for his losses, there is no insurance check to compensate for eating [excrement].
But The Help presents itself as warm, funny, "uplifting." It is not, to say the least, "provocative." Some of its trailers present it as half wacky comedy, half go-get-'em underdog movie, where it's the good guys (the maids plus Emma Stone) versus the bad guys (the mean white employers in town, particularly the wicked Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard). The trailer promises that the relationship between Skeeter (Stone) and Aibileen is "an unexpected friendship [that] will change everything."
In analytical terms: "Yyyyyyikes."
Perhaps "unlikely" is right, but "friendship" is awfully curious. Because here's how they meet: Skeeter gets a job writing a happy-homemaker column that she's not qualified to write, so she asks Aibileen, her friend's maid, to be her entirely unpaid ghostwriter. It's while benefiting from this unpaid labor (that she herself is being paid to do!) that Skeeter decides she wants to write a book about maids. And she wants Aibileen to stick her neck way, way out by sharing her experiences working for white families. So, yes, I'll say it's "unlikely," in that it's a rare friendship that begins with the party of the first part persuading the party of the second part to risk life and limb by excavating her history of being traumatized for free. (Skeeter will eventually share the money for the book with the maids, but this is not negotiated, transforming it into a magnanimous and unexpected act by Skeeter rather than literally the least she could do for women placing themselves at such risk.)
It's probably overly nitpicky to add that given that this all takes place in 1963, an awful lot of people would doubtless be surprised to hear that it "changed everything."
Money Can't Buy You Love
Skeeter, oh, Skeeter. One much-discussed element of The Help's racial politics is the role of the white savior. Take it away, critic Wesley Morris:
Skeeter's exposé is meant to empower both the subjects and the author, but The Help joins everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Blind Side as another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism. Skeeter enjoys all the self-discovery and all the credit. She cracks the mystery of her missing childhood maid (Cicely Tyson). She finds a career at a moment in which women rarely had them. And she changes the lives of a couple of dozen black women whose change is refracted primarily through her. Skeeter's awakening is a seemingly risk-free reassurance, just as Hilly's Hanna-Barbera villainy is a kind of delight. [Hilly is the monstrous, most overtly racist woman played by Bryce Dallas Howard.]
For sure, Skeeter is a classic film/television white savior. She couldn't be more so if she had an S on her chest. But there's something else that's profoundly amiss at the center of The Help, and it's the privileging of personal feelings and the utter failure to reckon with any of the realities of the power relationships between employees and employers—whether those employers are personally benevolent or not—that are so painfully evident in the relationship between Sal and Mookie.
In The Help, the love between maids and the children they raised, and in some cases the love between maids and adults they work for, exists outside structural inequalities and is affected by little other than personal cruelty or kindness. Far from being made of those fragile threads between Sal and the Bed-Stuy customers, the love between those with less power and those with more is the film's spine. Like Mookie, Aibileen can tell you exactly how much she makes in her economic exchange with her employer—she makes $182 a month; Mookie makes $250 a week—but for her, that's separate from the love that has connected her to the 17 white children she's raised. In fact, one of the things that marks Skeeter's mother (Allison Janney) as a villain is that she tells Skeeter that the maids are just employees—"We were just a job to her. With them, it's all about money." Obviously, this is racist, the way she says "them," and so forth. But what is so awful, in principle, about the idea that the heart of your relationship with someone you employ is economic? Why must Skeeter prove to her terrible mother that no, being a maid is about love?
Minny (Octavia Spencer) actually explains at one point that maids always love the kids they raise, until those kids grow up to be like their parents. And this is the betrayal we are led to believe hurts the most: the personal betrayal, not the systemic. Not the fact that Minny has to teach her own daughter how to step carefully around racist employers (don't let your hand touch theirs, don't mingle your dishes with theirs), but the fracturing of the bond between maids and other people's daughters. This conceptual muddle is evident when Minny starts talking about how difficult the job is and mentions not getting minimum wage or Social Security. Skeeter says maybe things can change. "What law's gonna say you got to be nice to your maid?" Minny snaps. And of course, no law is going to regulate niceness. But I can think of some that might address whether you get minimum wage and Social Security. Paying minimum wage isn't important because it's nice; it's important because it's just. The film's porous boundary between issues of economic justice and personal affection reappears over and over.
Skeeter has this fixation on love as well, particularly as regards the maid who raised her, Constantine. (Constantine is played by towering legend Cicely Tyson, making this as good a time as any to acknowledge that for all its narrative weaknesses, The Help is full of brilliant actors.) Skeeter's original framing of the issue of the maids, as she explains it to her putative editor (Mary Steenburgen), is that the situation with the maids needs to be talked about more, because, as she puts it: "We love them and they love us, but they can't even use the toilets in our houses."