Thanks to Master Cat! Alvaro Rodriguez for breaking down the hit film:
Written by: Tate Taylor (screenplay), Kathryn Stockett (novel)
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Genre: Institutionalized — The Help is a classic institutionalized story that, like Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winning Crash (2005) which Blake beats out in Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies, deals with racism through the eyes of several characters. The institution here is the deep South under Jim Crow in the early 1960s.
1. Opening Image: A young Southern white woman nicknamed Skeeter (Emma Stone) — as pesky and insistent as her nickname implies — interviews an older Southern black woman named Aibileen (Viola Davis) about her life as a maid. Skeeter will be the recorder but the storyteller is Aibileen, although she is reluctant to answer the first questions: “Did you know as a girl that one day you’d be a maid?” and “What’s it feel like to raise a white child when your own child’s at home being looked after by somebody else?”
2. Theme Stated: Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan interviews for a job at the Jackson Journal newspaper, proffering as a reference a rejection letter from a New York editor. “Great potential… gain some experience and please apply again.” This will be a story about preparing for the challenges of life through experience. Neither Aibileen nor Skeeter will be ready until they have experienced each other’s humanity to finally break free from the institution.
3. Set-Up: In 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, headstrong, independent Skeeter attempts to assert herself into womanhood by pushing against the tide of her friends, family, and the town itself. While most of her college friends majored in “husband hunting,” Skeeter wants to be a writer, a journalist, and a novelist. Meanwhile, Aibileen recounts the generational path that placed her here in servitude: “Momma was a maid. My grandmother was a house slave.” They are two opposite characters: one born of privilege, the other of indenture. We are also introduced to Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the doyenne of Jackson who leads a pack of young married women in the rituals of women’s auxiliaries and bridge parties, and her thick-skinned housemaid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Hilly’s mother, Missus Walters, old and infirm, lives with Hilly; Minny is nurse to her and her grandchild. Aibileen’s boss is Elizabeth Leefolt, a loyal footsoldier in Hilly’s army of Stepford wives, though she is clueless to her own child’s care and upbringing, leaving that instead to Aibileen. The odd one out is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a Marilyn Monroe-like blonde who seems to have fallen from favor from Hilly’s crowd, though it’s not entirely clear why. Skeeter also can’t understand what happened to her family’s maid, Constantine, who raised her and worked for her family for almost three decades but has now disappeared.
4. Catalyst: At a bridge party, Hilly makes a stink about Elizabeth allowing Minny to use the restrooms in the house and announces she has launched an initiative that would require every white-owned home to have a separate bathroom facility for the “help.” Skeeter, offended by the insinuation, approaches Aibileen for help with her housework advice column in the Jackson Journal. She also wants to know if Aibileen knows what happened to Constantine.
5. Debate: Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte Phelan, is both upset at Skeeter’s new job (it seems unlikely to net her a husband, the ultimate badge of success for a woman in this “institution”) and annoyed by her questions about Constantine (“It was a colored thing and I’ve put it behind me”). Saddened, Skeeter flashes back to a moment with Constantine, who insists “we don’t get to pick” our destinies, they pick us. Skeeter contacts Miss Stein, the editor at Harper and Row, about writing a story from the point of view of “the help,” a side of the story never heard. Skeeter proposes this to Aibileen, but Aibileen says it would bring all sorts of disaster to participate in such an exposé.
6. Break into Two: At Hilly’s insistence, Elizabeth has installed a no-frills toilet for Aibileen’s use. Hilly fires Minny when she discovers Minny has used the indoor toilet even though a fierce thunderstorm is raging outside, then spreads rumors among the other women that Minny is a thief. Skeeter corners Aibileen about being interviewed and they meet in secret to begin the work.
7. B Story: While the A Story deals with issues of race, the B Story deals with issues of womanhood, maternity, and relationships. Skeeter’s B Story deals with her budding relationship with an elusive young beau named Stuart, while Celia struggles with lies and cover-ups in her own marriage. Missus Walters’ issues with early onset of dementia are counterplayed against Charlotte’s cancerous ulcers.
8. Fun and Games: Minny announces she has done something unspeakable to Hilly in retaliation for being fired. Skeeter and Aibileen begin the interviews, recounting Aibileen’s first job as a nanny to a white child at age 14. More importantly, Aibileen takes a more active role in the storytelling, writing down her stories in a journal and recounting them to Skeeter. Minny finally finds work with the outcast, Celia, but Celia wants her to keep the job a secret from Celia’s husband. Skeeter and Aibileen continue to meet in secret until they are discovered by Minny, who thinks Aibileen is crazy to participate. At the same time, racially tinged violence nearby reminds them all of the volatility of the situation and the risks they are taking in talking. Minny agrees to be interviewed and begins telling all her stories.
9. Midpoint: Skeeter sends the first interviews to Miss Stein, who encourages her to write more and write quickly “before this civil rights thing blows over.” Skeeter will have to get at least a dozen more maids to interview.
10. Bad Guys Close In: Minny sets about schooling Celia in housekeeping and cooking, and Minny is at first taken aback at Celia’s lack of “separate but equal” boundaries between them. Meanwhile, Hilly has finally arranged a date for Skeeter to meet Stuart, who is so unimpressed with Skeeter, he gets drunk and rude. Skeeter gives it right back to him and the evening is over. Hilly’s new maid, Yule May, approaches Hilly and her husband for a loan to help send her twin boys to college. Hilly flatly refuses to help. Hilly continues to push Skeeter to publish her “health initiative” in the women’s league newsletter, and questions Skeeter on getting too friendly with “the help.” Skeeter gets revenge by calling for donations of commodes to be left in Hilly’s yard, enraging Hilly. Aibileen rides home on the bus one night when the shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers nearby forces the black riders off the bus. Aibileen retreats to Minny’s house, where Minny backtracks about going further with the interviews — it’s too dangerous. Minny discovers Celia has miscarried her baby and the fragile perfect world she has created is shattering before her eyes. Once recovered, Celia tries to reintegrate into Jackson society by bringing a pie over, unwittingly revealing to Hilly that Minny is her maid and earning Hilly’s renewed ire. Hilly has Yule May arrested for theft, triggering several more housekeepers and maids who want to tell their stories to Skeeter.
President Kennedy is shot and killed. The book of interviews is nearly finished, but Aibileen again has real doubts about their safety should they be discovered. Minny reveals the secret she’s been keeping from them: she knows that if this story makes it into the book, it will act as an insurance policy to keep them safe from retaliation. Miss Stein tells Skeeter that she must turn in the manuscript in three weeks or risk getting dumped in a slush pile. Skeeter must finally include her own story — her relationship with Constantine — in the book.
11. All Is Lost: Skeeter finally gets the true story of Constantine’s disappearance from her mother — when Constantine’s daughter upstaged Charlotte in front of her high society guests, Charlotte fired Constantine and banished her from the house. Skeeter also learns that Constantine has since died.
12. Dark Night of the Soul: The book comes out and becomes the talk of the town. Many suspect that the anonymously authored book was written by one of the town maids and that the anonymous town is really Jackson. Hilly reads the “insurance policy” story in the book and screams.
13. Break into Three: Hilly is the center of attention at the annual “African Children’s Benefit Ball,” even though it is a drunken Celia who turns heads with her erratic behavior. Hilly wins Minny’s baked pie in the charity auction, a direct link to Minny’s “insurance policy” story, and fears being exposed by Celia. Missus Walters, on leave from her nursing home, confesses to winning the pie for Hilly in revenge for being stuck in a nursing home.
14. Finale: Skeeter admits to Stuart that she is the author of “The Help,” and he breaks up with her. Celia’s husband confronts Minny about being Celia’s maid, but welcomes her into the home, thanking her for helping Celia during her rough time after the miscarriage. Skeeter’s first royalties come in for the book, and she distributes them equally to all the housemaids interviewed in the book. The black community, represented by Aibileen’s church, show their appreciation to Aibileen and Skeeter by signing copies of the anonymous book, thanking them for giving voice to their stories. Skeeter declines a job offer from Harper and Row, unwilling to leave the fires she’s started in Jackson, but has a change of heart when Aibileen and Minny give their blessing. Hilly threatens Skeeter with a libel suit but is scared into submission when a reinvigorated Charlotte, atoning for her dismissal of Constantine, insinuates she knows the truth behind Minny’s “insurance policy” story. In a last ditch effort, Hilly tries to get Aibileen fired for theft, and Aibileen has a tearful farewell from the child she has helped raise.
15. Final Image: Aibileen, now certain of her new destiny, breaks the chain and quits housekeeping and childcare altogether and walks into her new life as a storyteller. Through their interaction, Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny, and Celia have sparked the beginnings of change in the institution and now leave it behind to claim new destinies and identities.