And the award for Best Misuse of a Minority goes to . . . The Help.
When the award shows for this season are broadcast and the winners revealed, and The Help takes a prize for whatever, remember this post.
Because the controversy over what’s on the pages and the depictions on screen are only half the story.
If you’re linking here from another site, please know that I read the book. And I know full well about segregation. So if you’re going to talk smack on another site, please bring your questions here and I’ll be glad to answer them. The book was crap and movie reviews are on this site, both pro and con. I’m willing to back up my statements with archived information from Southern newpapers and researched articles. In addition, I’ve listed the quotes from principles both behind and in front of the camera, with links.
How the book came to be, from inspiration to movie will be covered here. No, its not pretty. But taken on the whole, business goliaths like Publishing and Hollywood don’t have a system of checks and balances when it comes to a fair and balanced depiction of minorities. That’s possibly because these entities aren’t as diverse as they’d like to think.
The system is broken from the top down. And since Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back, especially when it believes its found a property that has a message and can make money, it was only a matter of time before they were bested at their own cut throat game by newcomers.
When I was younger I used to love to watch The A Team. I recall Mr. T, Face, and when the ringleader, played by George Peppard would light up a stoogie and muse “I love it when a plan comes together.”
In a nutshell, that’s what happened with The Help. So forget the PR spin of a southern author writing about an unjust system her beloved maid toiled under.
For as the actual quoted statements by the participants attest, their answers invite more questions on what exactly the inspiration and motive behind The Help was. The highlighted words are my doing. Please pay attention to them.
A CONVERSATION WITH KATHRYN STOCKETT
Q. What was the genesis of the novel?
A. Growing up in Mississippi, almost every family I knew had a black woman working in their house–cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the white children. That was life in Mississippi. I was young and assumed that’s how most of America lived.
When I moved to New York, though, I realized my “normal” wasn’t quite the same as the rest of America’s. I knew a lot of Southerners in the city, and every now and then we’d talk about what we missed from the South. Inevitably, somebody would start talking about the maid they grew up with, some little thing that made us all remember–Alice’s good hamburgers or riding in the back seat to take Willy May home. Everybody had a story to tell.
Twenty years later, with a million things to do in New York City, there we were still talking about the women who’d raised us in our mama’s kitchens. It was probably on one of those late nights, homesick, when I realized I wanted to write about those relationships from my childhood.
Some of those transplanted southerners the author speaks of include Stockett’s childhood friend Tate Taylor, who also had a maid during his formative years (1970s, 80s). Co-producer of The Help, Brunson Green also admits that they were all long time friends. There are a few other individuals who made up this group, but of those frequently mentioned (Stockett, Taylor and Green, and lastly Octavia Spencer) at least three have numerous published interviews revealing how The Help, both in novel and screenplay form came to be.
And so it began, Looking for Mr. Good Plot by mining the past, present and most of all, people (all items in bold are my doing)
Watch a Black Person to truly “know” a black person
TT: . . . And then Katy said, “I want to come meet everybody!” And so she came to New Orleans in 2003 and she met Octavia. And Octavia was being Octavia and she goes, “You know that book I’m writing? Do you think Octavia would mind if I modeled a character after her?” And I go, “Just do it, just don’t tell her about it.”
KS: No, not modeled – we have to kind of step carefully on that one.
TT: Oh, true.
Interview with real life maid Abilene Cooper by the UK Daily Mail:
” ‘I met Kathryn on two occasions.
The first time she came to stay the night. She said, “I’m Rob’s baby sister,’’ and I said, “I’m Abilene.” ‘The second time she was married and she came with her husband and daughter. I never told her about myself. She was quiet, standoffish, but she’d watch me. I’d be dishwashing or it would be playtime with the children and she’d be just staring at me.’
. . . Abilene says she first learned of the book when she arrived at work to find her employer in tears. ‘Carroll was crying and she says, “Miss Abilene, I’ve got something to tell you.”
She says, “Kathryn’s wrote a book and you are the main character. Rob told her not to use your name.” ’ Then a copy of the book arrived for Abilene from the author with a note saying that while a main character is an ‘African-American child carer named Aibileen’, she bore no resemblance to the real Abilene.”
“. . .It’s because I usually have my mind on a story– either mine or someone else’s– where the tomatoes are riper, the itches are itchier, the sun burns hotter than in regular life.”
Be the pedigree
“. . . Stockett is completely charming. She talks like a Southern belle, though it’s probably the English concept of a Southern belle; ‘Would y’all care for something to sip on?’ she asks. She serves tea and cake while telling me about when she attended ‘culinary school’, caressing the words in her high sing-song voice.
Stockett is telling me about her grandparents, who played a big part in her life when she was a child. Her grandmother Caroline grew up in Shanghai in a family of missionaries (‘Grandmother went over there with her family to save the souls of the heathens’), returning to Mississippi when war broke out. ‘She came back to settle down and start a family with a very strict idea of how things should be between people of colour, coming from Shanghai, where there was no middle class. And of course that is exactly how Mississippi did things, so she fitted right in.’
. . . Stockett says it took her 20 years to realise the irony of the situation with her beloved Demetrie. ‘We would tell anybody, “Oh, she’s just like a part of our family,” and that we loved the domestics that worked for us so dearly – and yet they had to use a bathroom on the outside of the house.’
Did Demetrie have her own bathroom? Stockett looks steadily at me. ‘Yes.’
And did you just accept that at the time? ‘I never knew about it! I’m so naive and stupid that I never gave a thought to where she went to the bathroom until I was 20. I’m so embarrassed about this. It never occurred to me that she had a separate bathroom, but when I came home from college I found this door on the outside of my grandparents’ house.’ “
Sell it, work it, own it
“In 1970s Mississippi I didn’t have a single black friend or a black neighbour. Yet one of the closest people to me was Demetrie, our family’s black housekeeper.” – Kathryn Stockett
“Revealing a parallel between The Help and her own life, Stockett said she idolized her family’s housekeeper and tried to mimic her “chocolatey, rich” voice. “I would try to imitate the way she talked and, of course, my parents would get very upset that this little white girl was trying to talk like a black person,” Stocket said. “When I was 30 and wanted to put those voices on the page [for The Help], of course I felt very conflicted, like I was doing something wrong. All those voices from my parents were coming back to me.”
“. . . motivated in part by nostalgia for the maid who had helped raise her in the 1970s. “I felt like if I wanted to hear her again – she died when I was just 16 – the fastest way to do that was to start writing in her voice,” Stockett says. “Honestly, I didn’t think anyone was going to read the story.”
As a result, she wrote with “abandon,” letting her feelings lead her. It was only much later, when she decided to try publishing what had become a full-blown novel, that she started to get “very nervous that I had crossed a line that should never be crossed in America.”
To help cover her tracks over that line, Stockett recruited an actress friend, Octavia Spencer, to participate in her first book tour. “I would read the white parts and she would read the black parts and we had a lot of fun,” Stockett says, adding that Spencer’s free spirit was the inspiration for Minnie, one of her two black heroines. “She got it. She grew up in Alabama and she understood that world probably better than we do.”
Interview with John Barber for Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Dapito: And is there a movie version coming out of The Help? Did I hear that right?
Stockett: The movie rights have been sold to a fellow Mississippian Tate Taylor (inaudible) Green and I’m just so lucky that the book is in the hands of people, not only Mississippians but friends of mine from Jackson. They’re two filmmakers based in Los Angeles.
Dapito: Oh I can’t wait. Do you think they will cast Octavia and some of the other narrators?
Stockett: I think Octavia will be the part of Minny because ah . . (pause and laughter) you know, that was just the agreement. It wasn’t that hard of, it you know, there was no pulling hair on that one. She’s such a natural.”
Link: An Interview with Kathryn Stockett, Author of ‘The Help’ Narrated by Diana Dapito
Research? We don’t need no stinking research!
“…1963 was a horrifying and momentous year in Mississippi’s history as well as the entire United States. It was… the fall of 62 when James Meredith was accepted into Ole Miss and in 1963 Medgar Evers the uh…who was with the NAACP he was bludgeoned to death on his front yard in front of his children.” (stated at 8:34 minutes into a 10:31 interview)
For two additional audio interviews where the author repeats Evers was “bludgeoned” see this post:
Tate Taylor: “I didn’t think we should talk about the Jim Crow Laws because I felt like people know what that is and she told me when she wrote the novel, her editors in New York – highly educated people – had no clue about Jim Crow Laws. I go, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I know, I swear! You think people know. They don’t. So she goes, ‘I’m telling you put it in,’ and I did. I thought, being a Southerner, it was too much. ‘Oh really? Of course there’s Jim Crow Laws.’ That was the one thing.”
D.N.: When you interviewed people for the book, was there anything that stood out?
K.S.: What stood out was the emotion that white people had about the connection to their black maids. When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for.
That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job.
“I think they were surprised that I was able, hopefully able to portray the love we felt for these woman and that you know, I assume that they felt for us . . .” (11:29 into the interview)
“The scene where Viola Davis is sitting on a toilet in a garage in 108 degrees, and then a white woman comes out and tells her to hurry up was visually brutal. To me that’s worse than seeing a lynching. It just is.”
“There were times when the studio was talking about a cookbook, but I don’t know if anyone wants to cook these things. Southern food is much better, but when they’re not eating these fancy, baby showers and things, the food they served is horrendous but it’s real . . .”
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Review by Australian columnist Liz Jones makes an important point:
“I went to an advance screening last week of The Help, the Oscar-tipped Hollywood film that has already taken $62 million at the American box office and which opens here next month.
It amused me no end that it was a “fashion press” screening, which has been followed up with “get the look” emails from various High Street firms, due to its setting in the Deep South of Mississippi in the early ’60s. Never mind that the film is about segregation and lynchings.
It’s like being asked to a screening of Schindler’s List, and then “getting the look” of all the lovely uniforms. Such is modern-day marketing.
The film has caused controversy in America, particularly because the story concerns a young, white, privileged journalist who tells the story of the lives led by black maids, the “help” in the title.
I disliked the fact that the black actresses, particularly Octavia Spencer, are so “eye rolling”, but I suppose I’d still be complaining if Halle Berry had been cast instead (too white, too beautiful). But what I found most interesting was its premise that it was women who oppressed black people. . . “
Dreamworks and Disney decide to pimp an alternate universe, where segregation is all about ”Handsome Good Ole Boys” and “Southern Dreamboats” for overseas dollars:
When real questions are asked, cracks appear
“I just made this shit up!” quote by Kathryn Stockett
The National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Philadelphia convened on August 6, 2011. During a post-screening of the film The Help, a Q&A moderated by MSNBC’s Tamron Hall, Stockett reportedly answered a question from a female audience member.
“. . . All of the criticism we’ve been facing is based on the fact that I’m not an African-American director and that Kathryn is not an African-American writer” – quote from Tate Taylor, director and screenwriter of The Help
“Civil rights is just the backdrop. I’m not qualified to make a film about civil rights. People say to me: ‘Why wasn’t there a lynching? Why aren’t there houses burning down?’ But that’s not what this story is. For me, the most horrific moment in the film is the scene where the maid is sitting with her panties round her ankles in a three-by-three plywood bathroom, like a cat in a litter-box, while an impatient white woman is tapping her foot outside. If people need to see blood and gore and can’t see how horrific that is – well, I don’t have answer to that.”
“ ‘I am not Skeeter,” she said. “I’m not that brave. I never thought to question how things were.’
. . . I was taught that racial issues were considered tacky for a young lady to discuss,” she said. ‘I wasn’t even allowed to watch ‘The Jeffersons.’ – quotes from Kathryn Stockett
Interview with Dan Latini of One Book
“. . . this may sound ridiculous but I’m not criticizing the people that were living through those times and not questioning it. I’m just trying to examine it and also look at how far we’ve come.” – Kathryn Stockett
3:42 into the 10 minute audio interview with Barnes and Noble
“ ‘People say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe she would try to represent black women that way.’ Demetrie didn’t go past sixth grade. She lived in a shack. I wasn’t trying to represent a whole race or people,’ she says.”
Interview by Lonnae O’Neal Parker for the Washington Post.com
WOW: Oh, how interesting. How bold of you to write in the voice of a black woman.
KATHRYN: Oh, it’s not that bold if you think no one’s going to read it.
WOW: OK, so you’re writing this privately; you’re feeling this – your story – is only for yourself?
KATHRYN: Oh, yes.
Interview with Joni Evans of WOW.com
“I’m still waiting for the jack-in-the-box to pop,” she says, “for somebody to corner me and say everything I say in my own head – that I had no right to do this.”
Interview with John Barber for Saturday’s Globe and Mail
“The author’s father, Robert Stockett Jr. of Jackson Miss., told ABCNews.com that he is “neutral” in the division between his son and daughter, but agreed that plenty of people are profiting, especially filmmakers who plan to release a movie version of the book this year.
`Sure, I liked the book. It’s fiction. They didn’t give me the critics’ copy until it was too late,‘ he said. ‘I would have got some factual things changed. But I’m low down the totem pole . . .’ “
So remember all this when Hollywood, in an attempt to appear “liberal” awards this bungled blast into the past.
Ironically, in 1933 virtually the same scenario of “phone a black friend” occured with writer Fannie Hurst for her novel “Imitation of Life.” Hurst called Zora Neale Hurston her friend, and Hurston championed her book, even for a time, enlisting writer Langston Hughes to promote the novel. However Hughes was soon swayed by the critics, and ended up writing a parody.
Also take particular note of how enamored reviewers are, similar to some reviewers of The Help:
“The black, bulging Delilah abounds in the warm vigor which is Fannie Hurst at her best. I can think of no character of (Hurst’s) since Lummox who is as actual a creation as the mammy whose face and skill were the foundation of Bea’s fortune. (NY Herald Tribune)
“One of the most magnificently drawn characters in all the great store of literature depicting Negro life.” (Cinncinnati Enquirer)
“Most of us have at some time known a servant who partook in some measure of the nature of Delilah.” (Christian Science Monitor)
In the novel Delilah is described as “the enormously buxom figure of a woman with a round black face that shone above an Alps of bosom…the chocolate and cream effulgence that was Delilah. The heavy cheeks, shellacked eyes, bright, round and crammed with vitality, huge upholstery of lips that caught you like a pair of divans into the luxury of laughter.”
Critic Sterling Brown’s review of Imitation of Life (1934) from the magazine Opportunity
“It requires no searching analysis to see in Imitation of Life the old stereotype of of the contented Mammy, and the tragic mulatto . . . Delilah is straight out of Southern fiction . . . Her idiom is good only in spots; I have heard dialect all my life, but I have yet to hear such a line as “She am an angel.”
In 1968, William Styron’s Pulitzer prize winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner had an ally in writer James Baldwin. Yet the outcry was so loud against Styron’s depiction of a self-loathing, racially conflicted Nat Turner that the planned movie version was shelved.
In the case of The Help, an attempt to anticipate what criticism might occur (from the black community in particular), only caused more problems and verbal gaffes, like these on seeking “authenticity” on food of all things and not the time period, ”street cred” and “telling the truth” (items in bold are my doing):
“What’s unusual is that almost all the food in the movie was made by real Southern cooks—including teachers, a journalist and a cafeteria manager—recruited in Greenwood, Mississippi. Hollywood filmmakers typically work with caterers and food stylists, but Taylor, a Jackson native, wanted authenticity. “There’s a way we cook in the South; vegetables get a certain color to them,” he says. “That gets lost a lot of times, unless the right people make the food.”
“My key objective was to give this movie street cred especially within the African-American community, to represent them and not sugarcoat it,” said Taylor.
LA Times interview By NICOLE SPERLING
“If you want to see a historically accurate portrayal of life in the sixties, but go behind the door and see the humanity and the love behind these courageous . . .” – Director of The Help Tate Taylor
“We just wanted to tell the truth. Tell the real story and get it right. Many times as southerners our stories have been handled, taken into hands that were outside the south that’s not always as we know it to be. So we just really want to tell the truth . . . (pause) the good and the bad.” – Screenwriter and director of The Help, Tate Taylor
“About 20 minutes into the movie, you’re craving fried chicken,” says director Tate Taylor. That movie is The Help, the new film based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel . . .”
“Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” and “Minny don’t burn no chicken” – dialogue created by Tate Taylor for the film The Help
“If we are to reckon honestly with the history and continued legacies of slavery in the United States, we must confront the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice.” – Mikki McElya scholar and historian. Author of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007
I’ve put enough hints in this post so that as a reader, you should be able to figure out a number of things. If you still don’t get it, well then you possibly need a diagram or a how to book. In any event, I kinda felt like Neo from the The Matrix.
I believe I now understand how Kathryn Stockett could have completely forgotten she’d written that Medgar Evers was shot instead of bludgeoned.
And it goes back to the odd feeling I had when reading the novel for the first time, as if more than one person had “helped” to write it.
But what do I know? I’m just a blogger.
If you’re still having trouble “visualizing”, maybe this will “help”:
Tate Taylor: The gift of the whole thing was that I got the rights from Kathryn before she had a publisher, and she didn’t even know the book would get published and if it did get published, if it would do anything, so the real gift and the miracle of this movie is that I got to go off and adapt my friend’s screenplay unencumbered, by myself, and just write it from the heart and write it as a Mississippian and write it as a guy that had the pleasure of having an African-American woman in his life, Carol Lee, the woman who co-raised me with my mother. So I just got to tell the truth and write from the heart. Once the script was done and the book came out, that script kind of served as the calling card.
KS: Mmmmm, I don’t. I read! So no. But while I was writing the manuscript and Tate was reading it he kept saying, “Oh good, in this scene we’ll do this…” And I kept going, “Tate it’s not a movie – it’s a book!” I didn’t even have an agent and Tate said, “well listen when you shoot this scene…” We’re just very different writers. But it was really exciting to hand this project over to Tate because I knew he’d get it. We grew up in the same circumstances. It’s amazing how parallel our lives were. Both of our mom’s were divorced.
Read the full interview here:
For more on the southern “agreement” see this post:
Find more published contradictions in this post:
One of the best one liners I’ve read to describe The Help comes froms Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris, where he states ”One man’s mammy is another man’s mother”
Race, class, and Hollywood gloss: ‘The Help’ manages to mean well without forging new ground
by Boston Globe film Critic Wesley Morris
”. . . One woman’s mammy is another’s man’s mother. What can you do? It’s possible both to like this movie – to let it crack you up, then make you cry – and to wonder why we need a broad, if sincere dramatic comedy about black maids in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 and ’63 and the high-strung white housewives they work for. The movie is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time.
Ads mostly feature the white actors in various tizzies, using accents wide as a boulevard. It’s “Tin Magnolias.’’ Meanwhile, the heart of the film itself belongs to Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), the two very different maids and best friends at the center of the story. Aibileen is stoic. Minny is defiant. But the movie, like the extremely popular Kathryn Stockett novel it’s based on, uses the civil rights movement to suggest that the help could use some help. And so a young white woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) finds herself writing a controversial book in the words of the maids who work in the homes of her girlfriends.”
Read the full review here:
Here’s journalism instructor and author Valerie Boyd’s take on the movie for Arts Critic ATL.com (items in bold are my doing):
“The Help,” a feel-good movie — for white people”
“In fact, the movie ends on a falsely uplifting note, with Aibileen claiming to feel liberated after being fired while Skeeter plans to go shopping with her mother for a new wardrobe before starting her big new job in New York City. Aibileen is now an unemployed maid, Skeeter is moving forward in her life of white privilege — and the filmmakers expect viewers to feel good about this.
The problem is, many white viewers will.
Director (and screenwriter) Tate Taylor, a white Mississippian, presents his white characters in such stark, simplistic terms that white viewers will naturally identify with Skeeter, who the director wants us to see as heroic (despite what more politically conscious viewers will see as her exploitation of Aibileen’s ideas and words). Those well-meaning white moviegoers also will find it easy to distance themselves from Hilly, a society girl whose racism is so cartoonish that it becomes laughable rather than alarming. No contemporary filmgoer will see herself in a walking stereotype like Hilly. Of course, white viewers will say, I’m not like that.”
See the full review here:
I’d like to give the last word to this highly on point quote from a poster on Amazon.com, which states:
“Misrepresentation in a novel, whether or not it’s fiction, hurts. It hurts more when the writer connects it with something as profound as the civil rights movement. It’s the same sort of argument I hear from young adult readers when the issue of whitewashing book covers is brought up: a publisher releases a book with a white model on the cover when the book is about a black protagonist. When black readers complain, some white readers go, “It’s just a book cover. Stop making this into a race issue.” They say it, because they don’t understand. When you’re white and you’re used to having your race take centre stage in every single TV show, movie, video game – every facet of popular media – it’s difficult, probably near impossible, for you to understand that even the littlest things like fiction characters are big things to black people. Because we don’t have Harry Potters or Edward Cullens (thank God) or any of those popular white characters to represent us. So we have to make do with the little black characters that populate contemporary fiction.”
To be continued . . .