What film techniques does Tate Taylor use to portray the real spirit of The Help?

The director uses a number of techniques to effectively represent the spirit of the book The Help. A combination of the visual and auditory capabilities of film are used to convey the emotions underlying the story.
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Director Tate Taylor leverages the dual visual and audio capabilities of the film medium to portray the real spirit of the movie adaption of the book The Help. As in the book, the film is set in the deep south (Mississippi) of the 1960s as the Civil Rights movement is beginning to make its impact on the American scene. To the dismay of her friends, family and boyfriend, Skeeter embarks on a project to interview "the help" who have cared for prominent southern families over the years.

In visual terms, Taylor sets the scene by providing a glimpse into Aibileen's small tidy home. Early on, the movie audience sees Aibileen, played by Viola Davis, in the kitchen washing dishes at the sink. The audience immediately gets the sense of her daily life by seeing the small, neat, but simple kitchen and her domestic, fairly-mundane actions.

The camera pans to two pictures that hang on the wall above her. Their placement there, where she likely spends much of her every day time attending to her mundane routine, alerts the audience to the importance of the two figures seen in the pictures. One picture is of Jesus and the other is a photo of an unknown young black boy. The screen directions says that "Aibileen swallows hard," which also gives the audience a sense of her deeply inner contemplative nature, as well as the pain that she must have suffered over the years. Then she begins to narrate her story for the audience.

Taylor also chose to switch the narration of the book, which essentially told the story from the view point of several women, to allowing the Viola Davis character to be the main voice of the underlying message. In this way, Taylor is able to better portray the emotions behind the story; switching between multiple voices might have diluted the intensity of the women's feelings via a film adaption whereas it did not in the book.

Another technique that Taylor uses is to show the conflict between Hilly and Minny through their dialogue, as well as the visual in the aftermath of Minny's "gift" to Hilly.

Taylor also uses music effectively to create the emotions. The movie's soundtrack includes several gospel songs, as well as popular country and southern songs from the period. Singers include Ray Charles, Chubby Checkers and Johnny Cash.

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A key feature of the film The Help is the juxtaposition of two worlds butting up against one another—the world of rich white socialites and that of the working class African American women. Tate Taylor highlights that disparity in a few ways throughout the film.

  1. Setting: Tate takes the viewer back and forth throughout the film, from the large houses, manicured lawns and separate bathrooms of the wealthy homes to the smaller, more closely-placed homes in the black community.
  2. Color: Hilly's home is white, pink, green, and bright. The vibrant colors reflect her happy-go-lucky attitude that she is afforded due to her lifestyle. Aibileen’s house is darker, with muted colors. It feels as though she may be trying to conserve electricity and may not have the funds to constantly redecorate her home.
  3. Sound: The music and dialogue throughout the film directly reflects the groups of women speaking. During the card games, the sounds are light and pithy, while deeper tones are played when Skeeter meets with the women to discuss her book.

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Tate Taylor uses camera work to establish the spirit of the book. For example, when neighbors drop off toilets in front of Hilly's house (as Skeeter plays a trick on Hilly with the newsletter that she is editing and asks neighborhood women to bring toilets to Hilly's house), a long shot takes in all the toilets on Hilly's otherwise perfect and well-manicured lawn. This long shot establishes how ridiculous Hilly must appear to her neighbors and how humiliated she must feel that her perfect lawn is dotted with toilets.

Taylor also uses close-up shots to show the faces of characters such as Minny, an African American maid who detests Hilly and delivers her a feces-filled pie. When the viewer is able to see Minny up close, he or she understands the venom Minny feels towards the hateful Hilly. Another close-up shot captures Skeeter speaking to the New York editor about her book. The camera zooms from a mid shot to a close-up to show how ardently Skeeter feels about the book she is writing. 

In addition, Taylor uses the technique of mise en scène, or the way characters are arranged in a scene. For example, there is a shot of Skeeter, dressed in blue, on the left of the frame, reaching her hands across to Aibileen, an African American maid, on the right of the frame. Minny, another maid, stands between them. This arrangement conveys the alliance between Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen across the divide of race.

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The setting is the key here. The film has to show the differences between the lives of white and black people in the Deep South of the 1960s. Aerial views of the large estates of the Holbrooks, Phelans, and Footes are juxtaposed against the darker ground views of small one-story houses where maids live. We see black people sitting in the back of the bus. We see a cab door marked “Whites Only.” The scenes of the black maids in uniforms getting on and off the bus to get to their jobs at the estates are subtle but evocative images that we don’t get a full sense of in the book. Most of these pictures seem to occur naturally because they are the history of this place in this time. The film can show more of these features and do so at a quicker pace than the book can, and without further explanation.

The film is also good at depicting the time period of the early 1960s in general. The cars are from the era. People smoke proudly, indoors and out. The Junior League women wear pearl necklaces, colorful knee-length dresses or capri pants, and bouffant hairstyles. Popular songs of the day are heard in the background. The mix of visuals and sounds take the viewers directly to this time and place, so we can understand its color divide as well. We know this is the way it WAS. As we watch the film we realize that for some, this is the way it still IS.

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