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Saturday September 23rd 2023

The Help | 2011

Despite beginning and ending with ‘the help’, Aibileen (Viola Davis), Tate Taylor’s film of Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller slips almost inevitably into the noble-white-people-helping-the-downtrodden-blacks genre. Comic scenes of social snobbery undermine the genuine horrors of the period, but superb – and Oscar-winning – performances save the day.

The story is set in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi – where a little of the film was shot – but it was largely made 90 miles to the north, around the comparatively untouched city of Greenwood, on the Yazoo River. And, please remember that many of the film’s locations are private houses, so there’s the usual gentle reminder not to disturb residents.

There’s a clear divide between the haves and have-nots, with the social elite clustering around Greenwood’s Grand Boulevard, the tree-lined thoroughfare running through the heart of its most gentrified district north of the Yazoo.

The house of the cartoonishly ghastly Hilly Holbrook  (Bryce Dallas Howard), where Minny (Octavia Spencer) avenges years of casual humiliation by serving up the least appetising screen delicacy since Pasolini’s Salo, is 413 Grand Boulevard, while the housewives gather for bridge club in the home of Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), a little to the east at 1101 Poplar Street.

There’s a different feel a few blocks to the south, where maids line up to catch the buses to work at Little Red Park, on the junction of Poplar Street and East Adams Avenue.

Only recently married into money, and now ostracised by the cliquish ladies, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the ‘tacky’ girl from Sugar Ditch, lives “thirty minutes out of town” at Cotesworth, a gracious home on Old Granada Road, north of Carrollton.

Aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) lives with her ailing mother Charlotte (Alison Janney) at the Whittington Farm, 7300 County Road 518 (Money Road). The home’s interior, by the way, was actually filmed in 613 River Road, running along the south bank of the Yazoo.

Also south of the Yazoo, Aibileen’s own modest home is 203 West Taft Street.

The home of the beloved, and unfairly sacked, maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson), which Skeeter belatedly visits, is 1080 County Road 150.

Pursuing her literary career, Skeeter drives into ‘Jackson’, to take a job writing the ‘Miss Myrna’ cleaning advice column for the Jackson Journal. The town is actually Clarksdale, and the newspaper office is that of the Clarksdale Press Register (the town’s actual newspaper), at 123 East 2nd Street.

After deciding to collate untold stories of the local ‘help’, it’s at Mississippi’s State Capitol Building in the real Jackson that Skeeter gets a copy of the state’s old monstrous racial code – the notorious ‘Jim Crow’ laws which institutionalised the strict segregation of black and white.

Repellent as the attitudes of the 50s were, the era’s style has acquired an undeniable charm, no more evident than at Brent’s Drugs, 655 Duling Avenue, in the Fondren District of Jackson, which is the drugstore-diner where the ladies fix up conspicuously single Skeeter with a blind date.

And also in Jackson, you can find the Mayflower Café, 123 West Capitol Street at North Roach Street, the restaurant in which Skeeter gets a second date, over oysters, with rich boy Stuart (Chris Lowell), after her proto-feminist outspokenness sees the first date going horribly wrong.

It’s back to Greenwood for the rest of the film’s locations. The church in which Aibileen is inspired by a sermon on courage, after Minny’s sacking, is Little Zion MB Church, 63530 County Road (Money Road). Incidentally, this is also the last resting place of legendary Blues guitarist Robert Johnson, whose inspired playing was – according to the famous folk legend – the result of a pact with the devil.

The ‘Junior League of Jackson’, where Hilly announces her ‘Home Health Sanitation Initiative’ (that is, a prissy way of demanding outside toilets for blacks), is the Mississippi Garden Club Headquarters, 401 East Market Street; but the ‘Robert E Lee Hotel’ – site of the patronising ‘African Children’s Benefit Ball’, where a little too much alcohol scuppers Celia’s attempt at reconciliation with Hilly, was filmed at two separate locations.

The imposing pillared exterior is Leflore County Courthouse, 306 West Market Street; and the interior is the Old Greenwood Elks Lodge, 102 West Washington Street. ‘Avent and Clark’ the bookstore, where The Help by Anonymous, finally goes on sale, is stationery and gift store A Pocket Full of Posies, 309 Howard Street.

There’s the briefest of detours to Clarksdale to find the supermarket in which Minny and Aibileen realise that the book has become the town’s must-read sensation. It’s Wong’s Foodland, 520 Anderson Boulevard.

Sacked, but having finally broken her silence, the film’s final shot sees Aibileen walk off to a new future, along Greenwood’s Grand Boulevard.