DreamWorks Pictures acquired the screen rights to Stockett's novel in March 2010 and quickly commissioned the film into production with Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, and Brunson Green as producers. The film's casting began later that month, with principal photography following four months after in Mississippi.
In 1963, Aibileen Clark is a colored maid in Jackson, Mississippi, and in intermittent voice overs she tells her "career" story to the aspiring writer Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a recent graduate of Ole Miss and a friend of Aibileen's employer and fellow socialite Elizabeth Leefolt. Aibileen's best friend is the plain-spoken Minny Jackson, the maid of the socialite Leader and controlling Hilly Holbrook. Minny cooks well.
Hilly believes that the coloreds have different diseases from the whites. A tornado comes through town so Hilly wants Minny to go out into the weather to use the new bathroom. Minny uses the household bathroom, is fired by Hilly and people are told she stole property. Aibileen tells Skeeter her stories are worth telling when Minny is fired.
Minny finds a job with Celia, wife of Johnny Foote--Hilly's former beau. Celia cannot cook a lick but she can butcher her own chickens. Minny comes upon Skeeter's visiting Aibileen and joins in the book project effort. Skeeter is advised by her book editor at Harper & Row, Elaine Stein, that the stories of two maids are not enough. Potential retribution from the maid's employers hinders others from joining the project. Aibileen tells Skeeter about the pain she experiences about her son being fatally crushed working on the job and his body being dumped at the colored hospital.
Hilly has Yule May, Minny's replacement, arrested for thievery. More maids start with the book project.
Retribution from the employers is on the minds of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny if the stories are recognized in the book. Minny reveals her "terrible awful” that she did to Hilly. Its inclusion in the book would prompt Hilly to crusade denial that the book is about Jackson.
Skeeter confronts her mother Charlotte about the leaving of their elderly maid Constantine just before Skeeter's return to Jackson. Constantine's daughter Rachel arrives at the Phalen home, embarrasses Charlotte while she is entertaining the Daughters of America, so Charlotte's attempt to save face is to ask maid and daughter to leave the property. Before Charlotte could contain the situation, Constantine has died.
The book is published anonymously, and it is a success. Celia lets on that she knows about the terrible awful. Hilly attempts to intimidate Skeeter through threat of legal proceedings, but she reminds Hilly that "that" is in chapter 12. Charlotte lets on that she knows about the terrible awful. Charlotte and Skeeter are reconciled when Charlotte tells her how proud she is about her courage, the book and the job offer in New York City.
Johnny tells Minny that it is not too difficult to know that there has been a change at the house, how appreciative he is about her friendship with Celia, how it saved her life, and that she has job security. This act gives Minny the courage to take her children away from her abusive husband.
In an attempt to seek revenge for helping Skeeter, Hilly pressures Elizabeth to terminate Aibileen, with Hilly present and charging Aibileen with theft and imprisonment. This marks the third time that Hilly has used theft as either a reason or an excuse to ruin the reputation of a woman who is a maid in a household. Aibileen reminds Hilly that she knows about the terrible awful and reminds her that the success of the book shows that she has writing skills, that there is much time in prison to write, and that paper is free. Aibileen retires and goes to live with Minny and her children.
In December 2009, Variety reported that Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, and Mark Radcliffe would produce a film adaptation of The Help, under their production company 1492 Pictures. Brunson Green of Harbinger Productions also co-produced. The film was written and directed by Stockett's childhood friend, Tate Taylor, who optioned film rights to the book before its publication. DreamWorks acquired the film rights to the novel in March 2010. Reliance Entertainment and Participant Media co-produced the film.
The first casting news for the production came in March 2010, was reported that Stone was attached to play the role of Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan. Other actors were since cast, including Davis as Aibileen; Howard as Hilly Holbrook, Jackson's snooty town ringleader; Janney as Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter's mother; and Lowell as Stuart Whitworth, Skeeter's boyfriend and a senator's son. Leslie Jordan appears as the editor of the fictional local newspaper, The Jackson Journal. Mike Vogel plays the character Johnny Foote. Octavia Spencer portrays Minny. A longtime friend of Stockett and Taylor, Spencer inspired the character of Minny in Stockett's novel and voiced her in the audiobook version.
Filming began in July 2010 and extended through October. The town of Greenwood, Mississippi, was chosen to portray 1960s-era Jackson, and producer Green said he had expected to shoot "95 percent" of the film there. Parts of the film were also shot in the real-life Jackson, as well as in nearby Clarksdale and Greenville. One of the few locations that existed in 1963 Jackson, the book and the film is Jackson landmark Brent's Drugs, which dates to 1946. Other locations that can still be found in Jackson include the New Capitol Building and the Mayflower Cafe downtown. Scenes set at the Jackson Journal office were shot in Clarksdale at the building which formerly housed the Clarksdale Press Register for 40 years until April 2010.
The Help was the most significant film production in Mississippi since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) "Honestly, my heart would be broken if it were set anywhere but Mississippi", Stockett wrote in an e-mail to reporters. In order to convince producers to shoot in Greenwood, Tate Taylor and others had previously come to the town and scouted out locations; at his first meeting with DreamWorks executives, he presented them with a photo album of potential filming spots in the area. The state's tax incentive program for filmmakers was also a key enticement in the decision.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures distributed The Help worldwide through the studio's Touchstone Pictures banner. On October 13, 2010, Disney gave the film a release date of August 12, 2011. On June 30, 2011, the film's release date was rescheduled two days earlier to August 10, 2011.
The film was released by Touchstone Home Entertainment on Blu-ray Disc, DVD, and digital download on December 6, 2011. The release was produced in three different physical packages: a three-disc combo pack (Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy); a two-disc combo pack (Blu-ray and DVD); and a single-disc DVD. It was also released as a digital download option in both standard and high definition. The DVD version includes two deleted scenes and The Living Proof music video by Mary J. Blige. The digital download version includes the same features as the DVD version, plus one additional deleted scene. Both the two-disc and three-disc combo packs include the same features as the DVD version, as well as "The Making of 'The Help': From Friendship to Film", "In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi", and three deleted scenes with introductions by director Taylor.
The Help received mostly positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 75% of 208 professional critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 7.1 out of 10. The site's consensus states, "Though arguably guilty of glossing over its racial themes, The Help rises on the strength of its cast—particularly Viola Davis, whose performance is powerful enough to carry the film on its own." Metacritic, a review aggregator which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 62 based on 41 reviews. CinemaScore polls reported that the average grade moviegoers gave the film was an "A+" on an A+ to F scale.
Tom Long from The Detroit News remarked about the film: "Appealling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing, The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days." Connie Ogle of The Miami Herald gave the film three out of four stars and said it "will make you laugh, yes, but it can also break your heart. In the dog days of August moviegoing, that's a powerful recommendation."
A more mixed review from Karina Longworth of The Village Voice said: "We get a fairly typical Hollywood flattening of history, with powerful villains and disenfranchised heroes." Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail, giving the film two out of four stars, said: "Typically, this sort of film is an earnest tear-jerker with moments of levity. Instead, what we have here is a raucous rib-tickler with occasional pauses for a little dramatic relief." Referring to the film as a "big, ole slab of honey-glazed hokum", The New York Times noted that "save for Ms. Davis's, however, the performances are almost all overly broad, sometimes excruciatingly so, characterized by loud laughs, bugging eyes and pumping limbs."
Some of the negative reviews criticized the film for its inability to match the quality of the book. Chris Hewitt of the St. Paul Pioneer Press said about the film: "Some adaptations find a fresh, cinematic way to convey a book's spirit but The Help doesn't."
Many critics praised the performances of Davis and Spencer. Wilson Morales of Blackfilm.com gave the movie three out of four stars and commented, "With powerful performances given by Viola Davis and scene stealer Octavia Spencer, the film is an emotionally moving drama that remains highly entertaining." David Edelstein from New York magazine commented that, "The Help belongs to Viola Davis."
Ida E. Jones, the national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, released an open statement criticizing the film, stating "[d]espite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers." The ABWH accused both the book and the film of insensitive portrayals of African-American vernacular, a nearly uniform depiction of black men as cruel or absent, and a failure to acknowledge the sexual harassment that many black women endured in their white employers' homes. Jones concluded by saying that "The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women's lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment."
Roxane Gay of literary web magazine The Rumpus argues the film might be offensive to African Americans, saying the film uses racial Hollywood tropes like the Magical Negro character.
The Help earned $169,708,112 in North America and $46,931,000 in other territories for a worldwide total of $216,639,112.
In North America, on its opening day (Wednesday, August 10, 2011), it topped the box office with $5.54 million. It then added $4.33 million on Thursday, declining only 21 percent, a two-day total to $9.87 million. On its first weekend, the film grossed $26.0 million, coming in second place behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, during its second weekend, the film jumped to first place with $20.0 million, declining only 23 percent, the smallest drop among films playing nationwide. The film crossed the $100 million mark on its 21st day of release, becoming one of only two titles in August 2011 that achieved this. On its fourth weekend (Labor Day three-day weekend), it became the first film since Inception (2010), to top the box-office charts for three consecutive weekends. Its four-day weekend haul of $19.9 million was the fourth largest for a Labor-day weekend. Notably, The Help topped the box office for 25 days in a row. This was the longest uninterrupted streak since The Sixth Sense (35 days), which was also a late summer release, in 1999.
To promote the film, TakePart.com hosted a series of three writing contests. Rebecca Lubin, of Mill Valley, California, who has been a nanny for nearly two decades won the recipe contest. Darcy Pattison's "11 Ways to Ruin a Photograph" won "The Help" Children's Story Contest with her story about a tenacious young girl who refuses to take a good photograph while her father is away "soldiering". After being chosen by guest judge and children's-book author Lou Berger, the story was professionally illustrated. The final contest was about "someone who inspired you". Genoveva Islas-Hooker charmed guest judge Doc Hendley (founder of Wine to Water) with her story, A Heroine Named Confidential. A case manager for patients with HIV, Islas-Hooker was consistently inspired by one special individual who never gave up the fight to live.
The original song is "The Living Proof" by Mary J. Blige. The soundtrack was released on July 26, 2011, through Geffen Records.
The film's score was composed and conducted by Thomas Newman; Varese Sarabande released a score album on September 13, 2011.