Told through the point of view of three different women living in Jackson, Mississippi, The Help chronicles events from late summer of 1962 through 1964. Skeeter Phelan, who has just graduated from Ole Miss, returns home to the family plantation, ambitious to become a writer.
Taking the advice of a New York editor to hone her skills, Skeeter begins to write a column for the local newspaper while searching for a topic that she truly cares about.
Missing her beloved childhood family maid and confronted by the overt racism of her friend Hilly Holbrook’s campaign to require a separate bathroom for the black help, Skeeter proposes to write about the lives of the black maids in Jackson. Knowing she will need to interview black maids to tell their stories but without realizing the danger of what she is asking, Skeeter approaches Aibileen, the maid of one of her close friends.
With an increasing sense of bitterness at the injustice of her situation, Aibileen agrees to help, and later recruits Minny and eventually other maids. As they work on this project to tell their true stories, including stories of the prejudice and injustice that the maids experience in their everyday lives, a close relationship develops between Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. The three women come to confront and resist the intimidation experienced daily by the black maids. Woven throughout the stories are the key events of these seminal years of the civil rights movement.
Before watching the film
For an overview of the Civil Right Movement and the conditions of black people living in America, students can visit the following pages:
Address the following topics to help students add to their background knowledge:
1. Where did most Afroamericans live?
2. What was the Second Great Migration that occurred between 1940-1970?
3. Why did coloured people move to the North in such numbers?
4. What kinds of work were typical for coloured people in the South? Why?
5. What were the Jim Crow laws?
6. How did this affect the daily lives of coloured people, especially in the South?
7. What violence or threat of violence affected them?
8. What was their response? How did they resist the violence of racism?
While watching the film
Ask students to write down the following questions below and to focus their attention on the answers to them while watching the film. Pauses can be made while watching the film for the students to answer the questions or they can answer them after the film.
1. What are some of the forces that contribute to the segregation that arises in cities?
2. What are some of the rules that Skeeter gets from her mother, and what do these say about the kind of behavior considered proper for young white women of the time?
3. Why do you think Skeeter and her mother have different attitudes about these rules?
4. What deepens Aibileen’s bitterness toward white society?
5. What is it about Miss Celia’s background that makes her different from the other club women, and why do you think she wants to be accepted by them so badly?
6. In what ways has Constantine helped Skeeter to grow up? How has Constantine taught Skeeter kindness and self respect?
7. How has Aibileen helped Skeeter get the idea for her book?
8. How does Aibileen try to counteract the negative effects of Elizabeth’s criticism and coldness to Mae Mobley?
9. Why does the opportunity to tell the truth about working for white people weigh so heavily on Minny?
10. How are the Jim Crow Laws that Skeeter discovers in the library similar to Hilly’s bathroom plan?
11. What is motivating Skeeter to collect and publish the maids’ stories? Is it personal ambition or something more worthy?
12. Does Skeeter serve Hilly right when she causes old toilets to be dumped on Hilly’s lawn? Why do you think this action is appropriate or inappropriate?
13. Although Minny is very strong in some ways, she submits to physical abuse from her husband. What are possible reasons why she takes this abuse and does not stand up to him
14. What evidence of white violence to blacks do you find in the novel?
15. Why is Skeeter so eager to get out of Mississippi?
16. How has Aibileen changed through the events in the novel and the publication of the book?
After watching the film
1. List the following themes on a large chart and brainstorm how these themes are present in the film.
- Impact of elitism and racism on those who are prejudiced as well as the victims of prejudice
- Social pressures/conformity
- Man’s inhumanity towards man
- Searching for truth through writing/the power of the written word
2. Now ask them if these same themes can also be found in our present society. They can brainstorm examples to quote for their answers.
1. Characters in the novel are well aware of “rules” governing black-white interactions and the “lines” that divide the races in the South of the sixties. Ask students to consider if they are aware of “lines” that divide people at present in their country.
2. See the following video from The Guardian about segregation in Spain:
Salad slaves: Who really provides our vegetables
3. Read the following extract from a Report on Involuntary Domestic Servitude:
Involuntary Domestic Servitude
July 9, 2012
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 52.6 million and up to 100 million domestic workers around the world, cleaning and maintaining homes,
preparing meals, and caring for children and elderly. They perform these duties outside of the formal work sector and its protections, invisible to the neighbors and the law, often left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Too often, domestic work is not regarded as work at all, discrediting the value of child care and work performed in the home. Moreover, there is scant legal recourse available should labor violations, ranging up to and including forced labor, occur. This lack of legal protections, when combined with the social isolation and a lack of personal autonomy inherent in live-in domestic service, provides an enabling environment for servitude. As the Trafficking in Persons Report details and the recently adopted Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers seeks to address, domestic workers are trapped and exploited in nearly every country.
The vast majority of domestic workers are women and girls from developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, many of whom are migrants sending money home to their families. There are reports of criminal behavior on the part of recruiters, including searching domestic workers’ luggage to strip them of any phone numbers or information that might allow them to seek help; training workers to accept abuse as part of the job; and deceiving workers about their jobs’ responsibilities and sometimes even the location. Employers pay recruiters exorbitant fees, which leave some employers feeling that they have purchased the worker and deserve a return on their investment. Others pass that debt on to the workers. Meanwhile, workers also pay for training and job placement and then owe months’ worth of salary to pay off the often inflated or invented debt. And so before the work has begun, migrant domestic workers find themselves indebted to a degree of desperation.
Threats of arrest and summary deportation are common regardless of whether the worker is an undocumented migrant or a legal temporary guestworker. Traffickers use any combination of these elements to compel service, and the psychological and physical toll of this traumatic experience cannot be underestimated. Accounts abound of sexual assault and physical abuse, suicides and unexplained deaths. There are also reports of employers who sexually assaulted domestic workers and turned them over to third parties for prostitution.
Outside of the recruiting regime for migrant workers, in many countries children comprise the majority of domestic workers. They too can be subjected to long, punishing hours with heavy lifting, exposure to harmful chemicals, typically no wages at all, inhumane treatment, and physical and sexual abuse.
4. What factors create barriers between people? Do “lines” really exist between people, or are they just made up?
5. Students can construct a comparative chart to do so:
6. Discuss the factors that cause the “lines” between people. Examples: immigrants and people who are nationals of the country; people who have menial jobs and people who have intellectual jobs; people who hold high and low positions in a company…
7. Discuss in groups:
What is the main type of violence depicted in The Help?
What is the main type of violence exerted on people at present?
8. Ask students to think about the maids’ stories. Why is it important that they tell these stories? What do they hope to accomplish?
9. Are the students aware of any stories that need to be told today?
10. Ask students to search for present stories that should be told on the Internet and to share these stories in small groups. They can also upload them on their FB pages, Twitter…
This guide on the film "The Help" includes information taken from the guide for the book "The Help" written by JEANNE M. McGLINN, Professor in the Department of Education at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
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