The Help is a period drama set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. The narrative follows a young aspiring journalist, Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone), who writes a book based on the viewpoint of the black maids in the town. The film is beautifully made, drawing on all our emotions as it tells a personalised history of the treatment of black people in the deep south of America during the 1960s.
Something that I always cherish about a well-done period film is the production and set designers’ ability to create an authentic setting that allows us to time travel without any hesitance, something that Mark Ricker, the production designer of The Help, has done masterfully. While The Help takes the audience through a story of American history it also takes us through a small architectural and interior design history from old plantation mansions to the modern homes of the sixties.
Here is an exterior shot from an antebellum style house, which translate from Latin as a pre-war home. The antebellum style, which had heavy neo-classical influence, was hugely popular in the deep south of America, particularly for plantation mansions, which this house would have been. Below you can see an aerial shot of the old plantation house with its surrounding acreage.
Homes such as this one would have been kept in the same family for generations, and the artefacts and furniture in the home would have reflected this sort of heritage, as well as the history of the town and state. However, as the film was set in the 1960s you can begin to see modern cultural pieces edge their way into the scenes. This whole combination helps create an authentic setting and ambience that shows how these older, more traditional homes would have slowly transitioned through history and styles. Here we can see Emma Stone’s character in her kitchen, there’s a lovely juxtaposition between the historical shaker style cabinets and the vibrant colours of the modern canned goods on the shelf adjacent.
From a traditional southern plantation home to a newly 1960s built house, the contrast between the two homes shows the evolution in architecture and culture that took place in southern America. The modern ‘Brick Ranch’ home was a somewhat generic style that was replicated all over the US, becoming a symbol of the socially-mobile middle class. Mark Ricker, the production designer of The Help, commented that the purpose of using this type of house in the film was create a “bland and uneventful” setting to represent the lives of the families living there. However we do get a little peek of some mid-century pieces of furniture, the dining chairs for example are rather sweet.
Another type of house that we see in the film, is the traditional colonial house that is perfectly regimented and proportioned. This home belongs to the up-tight, racist and generally awful queen bee character of Hilly Walters Hillbrook. The film charmingly uses the different styles of each home to capture the traits of each character, Mark Ricker stating that the home of Hilly Hillbrook was “prim, perfect, pastel and icy”. There is a cocktail of traditional southern style and modern colours depicted in this home; the exterior of the home is grand and stately, while in the interior introduces some modern 60s colours and wallpaper.
Finally, the last home featured in the film is effectively a superior home to the others, but is belittled by Hilly for being 30 minutes outside of town and for its occupant. The home is a large plantation mansion that has been passed down through generations, which is reflected in the interiors. There are layers upon layers of artefacts and collections that would have been growing for decades. However, the character that lives here is somewhat of an anomaly to the system. She’s the wife of the man whose family has owned the home for centuries and has been barred from changing a thing, even though her dream would be to cover the place in white carpet and completely modernise it.
Here we witness a rather comical view of Minnie, one of the maids, attempt to clean the old relic house, which results in the vacuuming of a stuffed grizzly bear.
The Help is a lovely film, and well worth a watch for the story, the characters and the interiors.