The secret life of maids (The Help movie review)

A life is a story that must be told. People need narratives to protect themselves from oblivion and create illusions of importance. Our existence must be framed by narration – otherwise we will be inconsistent, unstable and fluid. Not having a story means being on the margin, outside the main history, and outside visibility. In the oppressing system not everyone is allowed to speak – dominant history is written from the perspective of a white, heterosexual man. There is no place for the voice of the Other. If we want the idea of democracy and equality to be no longer abstract or hypothetical, we need to learn how to listen to those who do not represent normative identities – we need to redefine the space of visibility and let marginalised social groups speak. National minorities, orphans, prisoners, residents of old people’s homes, psychiatric patients and other excluded people should get the right to tell their stories. ‘The Help’, directed by Tate Taylor, is a beautiful example of listening to the Other.

‘The Help’ tells the story of an aspiring author (charming Emma Stone) during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids’ point of view on the white families. We are dealing here with a double exclusion: Taylor’s characters are African-American and they represent the lowest social group – the domestic help. The director shows the world that shouldn’t be presented – the reality of the poor. Maids have not right to be visible – they belong to the kitchen. You can compare their existence to the theatrical situation – the stage (saloon) is for white people, black servants stay behind the scenes. They prepare the show, but their help shouldn’t be visible. They create the theatrical magic, but they are not allowed to participate in the performance. They exist, but they are not present – that’s why they can’t stand in the center of any stories. History is not their-story. Taylor shows that black maids, paradoxically, direct performances of their white employers. They prepare actors (children) and props (food) – without them white theatre would burn. The director uses stereotypes – white housewives are stupid, impractical, and superficial; black maid are smart, funny, and good. Positive white characters are not accepted by the rest of the demonized society. This simplification could be a weakness of ‘The Help’, but – fortunately – Taylor is talented enough to turn it into a value. Her movie becomes a touching parable – a beautiful exemplification of the philosophy of sensitivity and equality. What’s important – it’s not a schematic manifesto, but a brilliant caricature. Taylor uses the poetics of grotesque to show how idiotic is the belief in racial superiority – a ridiculous action of building separated toilets for maids is a critical point of the whole movie. Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in the roles of maids are absolutely stunning. It’s a shame that only one of them has won Oscar (for the supporting actress).