The Help: On the right side of profit but on the wrong side of history

Posted on August 11, 2012

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By all accounts The Help made a tidy profit for its investors. Boxofficemojo lists the final theatrical release figures as $169,708,112 in domestic gross and $41,900,000 as the final tally in foreign distribution.

UK and Ireland movie Poster. Gee, I wonder why this “follow the leader” image wasn’t used in the US marketing of the film?

 

 

Factor in DVD sales (domestic) from 2011 and 2o12:

DVD sales rank of The Help for 2011

 

 

Link: http://www.the-numbers.com/dvd/charts/annual/2011.php

Toip sellings DVDs of 2012

 

 

 

Link: http://www.the-numbers.com/dvd/charts/annual/2011.php

And this tale of the segregated south, with the overseas marketing campaign that proclaimed fictional segregationist Stuart Whitworth as a “handsome good ole boy” and Johnny Foote as a “Southern Dreamboat” tried single handedly to rehabilitate how southerners were perceived, or per director/screenwriter Tate Taylor (items in bold are my doing):

“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

Link: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

 

 

Overseas marketing for The Help, among other mis-steps:

“A Handsome Good Ole Boy” You’ve got to be kidding

 

 

 

That “Southern Gentleman” and “Dreamboat” Johnny Foote

 

 

 

See more on the “selling” of The Help in this post

But if you think that an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a win for supporting actress Octavia Spencer means a “feel-good” ending, think again.  Because much like the initial celebration and later condemnation of Amos n’ Andy, another popular creation and caricature of African Americans, the unraveling of the business model formed by a self-professed group of southern friends has just begun.

 

 

The creators of the radio show portraying Amos and Andy in blackface to promote their profit making creation.

 

 

 

The creators of Amos n’ Andy reveal how the show came to be:

The Pittsburgh Press Jul 28,1929 article on Amos n Andy

 

 

 

Please keep the above info in mind when reading the conflicting quotes by the principals on how The Help came to be.

“I guess when I felt like I was having a conversation with Demetrie, but, Michele, I didn’t get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling the story in the way it should be told, but I never considered when I was writing how it was going to make other people feel.”

Kathryn Stockett’s response in an interview with Michele Norris of NPR, when asked about the criticism by some black readers.

Link: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=120966815

 

 

 

Kathyrn Stockett admits to watching actress Octavia Spencer (who played Minny in the film) and crafting the maid who’d be called “blacker than Aibileen by ten shades” by the main protag Skeeter, as well as “short and big . . .setting with her legs splayed, her thick arms crossed” by Aibileen, noting how Minny had her legs wide open on a public bus, as well as “Minny could probably lift this bus over her head if she wanted to.” (Pg 13)

However, Stockett refused to admit she’d watched her brother’s real life maid Abilene Cooper, though Cooper claims in a UK interview, that the author did just that.

Abilene Cooper’s photo from the UK Daily Mail. This is the “real deal” Aibileen

 

 

 

Viola Davis saying the line that was never uttered in the book “You are a Godless woman” and made up to look like Abilene Cooper.

 

 

 

Photo of Demetrie, Stockett’s grandparents maid. Funny, but she doesn’t look “dark complexioned” to me.

 

 

 

Excerpt from the UK Telegraph article on Abilene Cooper:

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.

Stockett contended in her note that she modelled Aibileen on a long-dead black maid called Demetrie who worked for the author’s family in Jackson: ‘The Help is purely fiction and the character was loosely inspired by my own relationship with Demetrie’

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2033369/Her-family-hired-maid-12-years-stole-life-Disney-movie.html#ixzz1jewPbFMs

 

 

“It’s an awful, awful feeling to think that you’ve made money — and you can print this if you want — to think that you’re benefitting from somebody else’s loss. It’s a terrible, guilty feeling. I give a lot of money away.”

“I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. – Kathryn Stockett, from an interview with Wyatt Williams for Creative Loafing Atlanta.com

Link: http://clatl.com/gyrobase/kathryn-stockett-life-in-the-belle jar/Content?oid=3795185&showFullText=true

 

 

 

But what’s more troubling and was never followed up on by those in the media enamored with Stockett and her maids tale, is that after being lavished with love by her grandparent’s maid during childhood, her next closest contact with an African American came in the form of her best friend’s “friend.” His roommate Octavia Spencer, many years later, and only after Stockett needed to visualize a “sassy” maid for the novel.

If only the problems with The Help stopped there. Because  those “liberties” Stockett spoke of in the quote a few paragraphs above didn’t just include what was on book’s pages. While the novel contains a boatload of insults and offenses that ultimately, made it into the movie, how Stockett’s tale came together, absent the polished PR spin, may prove to be the true misgiving of those involved.

Kathryn Stockett, Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer’s eventual “friendship” is a tangled web of conflicting statements over the years.

Since Stockett was presented as the sole author of The Help, it stood to reason that she got most of the questions in 2009. But notice what her good friend and eventual screenwriter/director of the movie had to say in 2011, or rather how he bluntly contradicts Stockett on the part he played while she “wrote” the novel. First, Tate Taylor lays doubt on the genesis of the novel by inserting himself into Stockett’s often repeated tale of being alone during 9/11 and “missing” her devoted family maid:

Why did you decide to write The Help?

“I started writing it the day after Sept. 11. I was living in New York City. We didn’t have any phone service and we didn’t have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick — I couldn’t even call my family and tell them I was fine. So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. She later became the character of Aibileen [in The Help]. I sent the story to my mother and she was sort of like, “Hmm, that’s good.” As I wrote, I found that Aibileen had some things to say that really weren’t in her character. She was older, soft-spoken, and she started showing some attitude. That’s [how another character] Minny came to be. After a while longer, I decided to make it a book.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html#ixzz1eSL6g0Cm

 

 

It’s important to note the date of the interview, which was in 2009. And it was relayed virtually word for word in subsequent interviews by Kathryn Stockett:

“September 11 she was working in her apartment when the planes hit the twin towers, and due to some sort of power surge, everything was wiped off her hard disc, and she had no landline and no mobile phone reception. For two days she and her husband were completely cut off. ‘I felt so homesick, I’ve never been that homesick in my life, and on September 12 I started writing a story, in the voice of Demetrie, to comfort myself.’

Link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

 

 

 

Now read what screenwriter/director Tate Taylor said:

“And what’s beautiful about the whole reason The Help exists is it did not start out as “I’m gonna write a book.” When 9/11 happened she and I were talking on the phone, and she like all of us was so lost and homesick how am I gonna feel safe. She goes ‘Tate I wish I could go be with Demetrie in my grandad’s kitchen. She would have the answers that make me feel better and she’s dead. . .’ and the help began that day when she started writing short stories as an exercise just to have conversation with Demetrie . .. the book grew out of love and longing for a woman.”

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFOPpdYPMIw&feature=related

 

 

And here’s another quote from Taylor, as he tells the same story:

How did you get involved in the project?

Well, my good friend Kathryn Stockett, we have known each other since we were five – grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. She wrote this novel, wouldn’t tell me what it was about when she was writing it. But I remember 9/11 and we were talking on the phone and we were both so distraught. And she said, “I’m so homesick, I just wish I could talk to Demetri, I miss her so much.” (Demetri was the African American woman who raised her.) She told me she had been writing these short stories where she and Demetri would just talk. Little did I know that Demetri became Abilene and five years later she had finished this book, which she still wouldn’t let me read.

Link: http://www.blu-ray.com/news/?id=7079

 

 

 

Items in bold are my doing, so please bear that in mind. And also keep in mind that Stockett said she couldn’t talk to anyone because the power had been knocked out, while Taylor apparently forgets.

On the surface it could be easy enough to chalk this up as an overeager, first time major film director wanting in on Stockett’s “awww, what a heartwarming tale”

Until Taylor also admitted (items in bold are my doing):

. . . I got the rights a year before it was even in print and in my mind my partner and I were going to raise a couple million bucks the old school way, and make an independent film. That’s how it started. When the book got into print I had already written an adaptation and was controlling the rights.” – Tate Taylor

Link: http://www.blu-ray.com/news/?id=7079

 

 

 

 Which he stated it again in another interview:

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.

Link: Exclusive Interview: Filmmaker Tate Taylor on The Help – ComingSoon.net http://www.comingsoon.net/news/movienews.php?id=84880#ixzz1j5esR8MC

 

 

It gets worse. Note what Stockett reveals:

KS:  . . . 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: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

 

 

Let me repeat. Stockett admits “While I was writing the manuscript and Tate was reading it, he kept saying “Oh good, in this scene we’ll do this . . .” and she reveals that at the time she didn’t have an agent. On the strength of this interview, credited  to Stockett, the author reveals Tate Taylor was there when the novel was being crafted. However, there are prior interviews where Stockett gives contradictory statements.

It appears Taylor shot his mouth off because he wanted people to know just how big a part he played in all this. And nobody really noticed. Until they did.

 

 

And here’s one more interview, where Taylor pulls Octavia Spencer into this. A bit later in this post I go into the part Spencer played with “selling” Stockett’s premise by presenting herself as a “good friend.” But statements by Spencer, Taylor and Stockett are troubling, especially when Stockett reveals there was an early “agreement” between herself, Taylor and Spencer. Recall that Taylor spoke over Stockett regarding just when he got the rights to the manuscript. Here’s Taylor revealing even more (Red squared area).

Click image for larger view:

Director of The Help says Spencer there when screenplay adapted

Link: http://thegrio.com/2011/08/15/the-help-director-people-are-too-critical-of-this-film/

 

 

 

What’s the  point of all this? The Help (novel) appears to have been a collaboration between Stockett and Taylor and perhaps even Spencer. However, if you believe in the tooth fairy then you can possibly have faith that Taylor held no influence on what Stockett wrote, and vice versa. Except there are far too many interviews now floating around the web that bring into question Stockett’s pattened  replies from 2009 regarding the “creation” phase of the novel and contractory ones from 2011 by Tate Taylor.

For her publisher it made great PR to list Stockett as the sole author and “face” of the novel. Stockett’s blond, petite and attractive. Her family name had roots during segregation, so too her story with Mrs. Demetrie McLorn (Stockett’s grandparents maid), which appeared to check out. But according to Tate Taylor, he also had a similar upbringing with a favored black domestic named Carol Lee.

In comparing what Stockett had to say back during her early PR on the book, and Taylor’s, I gotta say, here’s why I believe Taylor was there and “helped” with the crafting of the novel while Spencer may have “contributed” in some fashion to the dialogue of the African Americans. It’s important to note that Spencer was a stand up comedian prior to becoming and actress. And while Taylor and Stockett may have thought her biting quips were quite funny, adding them to a novel which would be read by a variety of individuals, especially those who recall segregation wouldn’t have been a smart idea. It may be part of the reason the black characters sound as if they’re just fine with mocking their own culture and their loved ones, unlike the white characters in the book.

There’s also the whopper of an error regarding Medger Evers, and Stockett contradicting what she put in her novel on his means of death. Kathryn Stockett blew it big time with her lack of knowledge on how Medgar Evers really died. In three audio interviews Stockett claimed Evers was “bludgeoned” to death. The novel includes a moving section recounting the night of Evers assasination. Yet inexplicably, Stockett can’t recall Evers was shot, and not “bludgeoned” which was something she was supposed to have written.

Here’s a link to one of her gaffes. This one is from an audio interview with Barnes and Noble:

“…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

 

Link: http://downloads.feedroom.com/podcasts/t_assets/20090727/Kathryn_Stockett_REX_MP3_40WA.mp3

 

Read the excerpts from the other two interviews where Stockett mentions Evers was “bludgeoned” and somehow made it’s way into the novel here

 

 

Unlike other interviews where both Stockett and Taylor plant the idea that he had nothing to do with the book until after it had been published, note how he brashly corrects Stockett:

 

Kathryn Stockett: We have different versions of the story of how it came to happen (laughter). Tate said…the thing that really kind of broke me, and it wasn’t like a huge argument that we had about whether he would make the movie. . . .

Tate Taylor: If you think about it, you gave me the rights in June of 2008 and three years later (that was before the book was out) it was written, the book came out, and the movie’s finished. That’s quick. Maybe I was trying to scare you a little bit. But I’ve just been out here and you hear of these great projects…I think The Secret History, that’s one they put expensive writers on and then people don’t like it and then they bring on another expensive writer and all these people get involved and gets whittled and ugh. I didn’t want that to happen.

Read the full interview here: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

 

Which conflicts with this statement by Stockett in yet another interview:

“Tate would call me every couple of weeks with another draft or piece, and I would look at it I would nod and give my two cents. I really didn’t want to interrupt that process…It was crucial for me to hand it over to Tate and let him write his story.”

Link: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/08/10/author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-real-story-behind-the-help/

 

 

And here’s another:

Katie Couric: You and Tate Taylor, the director of the film, grew up together in Jackson. Would you have trusted any other director to turn your book into a movie?

Kathryn Stockett: Tate and I went to kindergarten together! In junior high, we were sneaking out in our parents’ cars and drinking. So when I got a publisher for The Help, Tate called me and said, “Can I have the film rights?” At first I said no. Every adviser in my life was saying, “Don’t do it. He’s untested.” But I’m so glad I did.

Link: http://lifestyle.msn.com/your-life/bigger-picture/article.aspx?cp-documentid=29865448

 

 

 

Stockett tells Katie Couric that Taylor asked for the film rights AFTER she secured a publisher. Yet here’s what Taylor brags in yet another interview, which is an audio interview and is still up on YouTube:

“The greatest gift that could have ever happened was I got the rights when Kathryn had nothing. She had been turned down by her 60th person. So when I got the rights I thought I was adapting my friend’s un-publishable manuscript. So I went out and wrote it free of Hollywood or anybody saying this has to be in there, and this has to be in there and I just wrote it as a tribute of my friend’s book and making her happy and to Carol Lee and Demetrie and the women that I all knew. So no offense to the readers I just didn’t worry about it. Cause if I kept true to the book and told the truth that hopefully it would work out.”

Link: Atlanta Moms on the Move http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc

 

 

Atlanta Moms on the Move audio interview with Tate Taylor and Viola Davis:

Taylor claims he went off unencumbered, yet recall Stockett slips up and says:  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…”

http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

 

 

Based on the conflicting statements, both the initial novel and the screenplay appear to have been written at the same time, with Stockett being given sole credit for the book, while Taylor was granted directorship and screenwriting duties. And Octavia Spencer was guaranteed the role of Minny for her co-operation.

By noting the similarities between Stockett’s life (black maid, focus on writing in the voice of female characters) and Taylor’s, take a look at what Tate Taylor rather crudely reveals in another audio interview:

“Every time I start to write a screenplay, I keep making the characters female. They just have so much more going on with the female characters . . . They’re just infinitely more interesting to me. Every time I write a character I’m like oh, here come the breasts . . .”

Link: Atlanta Mom’s on The Move http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc

 

 

 

There’s an old saying “Plan you work and work your plan” which seems to have happened with those initially involved with The Help.

All this could have probably stayed hidden, or as simply a pact among friends.

“One of my best friend’s growing up, Tate Taylor, wrote the screenplay, he and I had an agreement pretty early on that he was going to be the one to make the movie.”

Read the entire interview here:

http://www.bookrabbit.com/blog/interview-with-kathryn-stockett-and-win-a-copy-of-the-help/

 

 
Except for that pesky foot in mouth problem:

What Taylor stated to a UK newspaper (items in bold are my doing):

“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,” Taylor says. “It suggests that race relations in my country are still very black and white. But outside of a small academic elite, it doesn’t matter. . .”

AND:

“. . .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.”

Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/20/the-help-domestic-servants-on-film

 

 

AND ALSO:

“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.”

 

Link to Grio article can be found on this post: http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/director-says-thats-worse-than-seeing-a-lynching/

 

 

AND HERE’S ONE MORE:

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.”

http://movies.about.com/od/thehelp/a/tate-taylor-interview.htm

 

 

So basically, they all (including Taylor and Stockett) were clueless. And the one black “friend” they relied on pretended to be clueless and unphased in order to  land the part of Minny. For how else can Spencer explain standing on a stage with Kathryn Stockett, and listening to Stockett put on a pseudo black voice to narrate the “Spoilt Cootchie” scene from the novel, where Minny tells Aibileen that Cocoa, the woman Clyde, Aiblieen’s husband ran off with years ago, came down with a venereal disease just a week after leaving her, and some members of their church think that Aibileen accomplished this through God and “black magic.” I kid you not.

 

The spoilt cootchie reading, where Stockett voices Minny.

 

 

“Cootchie Gate” starts at about 8:50 into the video, but watch the whole thing, because Stockett saying “I can’t tell you how incredibly risky it was for Skeeter” and “I really enjoyed writing about the friendship between Aibileen and Minny . . . it reminded me very much of the friendships I’ve had in my life”simply highlights the truth in yet another interview quote attributed to Stockett:

Interview by Motoko Rich of  The New York Times

Excerpt:

She added Skeeter, she said, because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. “I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,” she said. “So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.”

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/books/03help.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

 

 

Sorry to say, but the whole book’s from a “white perspective” just like the film.

Here’s the video of “Cootchie Gate”:

 

 

Stockett: Tate was such a prankster! He still is. The horrible things he did to the people he even loved, or in high school, to me—he told me at one point I had to stop telling people what he used to do. [Laughs] For me, it was, “What was the worst thing you could do to Hilly Holbrook?” And it was her having the image in her own mind that she had eaten Negro shit. It’s kind of corny, the whole concept, but what saved that scene was Sissy Spacek.

 

Minny the Mammy, at the door with an apology and a shit pie for Hilly

 

 

But why even reference Tate Taylor? Unless he had a hand in crafting the poop pie scene in the novel. In far too many interviews Stockett is like a deer caught in headlights, while Taylor is much more blunt. There are several instances where the book veers into WTF territory, and my guess is Taylor (and possibly Spencer) had a hand in it.

On the set, Taylor reportedly requested (and got) the menstrual cycles of his female stars. Actress Emma Stone reported, as referenced in this interview:

Emma said you kept a calendar of everyone’s hormonal states?
TT: Oh, yeah. Yeah, varying menstrual cycles and 110-degree weather in Mississippi could have been a time bomb, but it was not.
OS: Let me just clarify …
TT: It was not! Everybody was wonderful. She had some bad days …
OS: He’s like my brother, and obviously I’m going to have bad days with him. But you know that’s the misperception though. That a group of women … is going to be crazy. But our hormones, while they can be problematic, I think there are so many professionals and such a good group that men will find—and I’m glad that he’s a person who has been around a lot of women in his life that that really wasn’t that daunting.
TT: No, it really wasn’t. Everybody was fantastic.

Link: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/redeye-qa-octavia-spencer-tate-taylor-of-the-help-20110804,0,7690314.story

 

 

Here’s more of the other interview where Stockett references Taylor on the poop-in-pie, a particularly nasty idea where Minny cooks up shit in her own kitchen and feeds it in a pie to Hilly. Most African Americans who’ve experienced segregation would hardly feel the funny in all this and Spencer tries to clean it up, but Stockett and even producer Chris Columbus don’t seem know when to quit. Liberalism at its finest (eye-roll):

Octavia: Oh my god! [Laughs] People always ask me if we were laughing hysterically through that scene, but I always say no, because it was never a funny thing for Minny. She always knew the danger. We never played the comedy of it; the comedy is knowing when it’s revealed.

Stockett: Tate was such a prankster! He still is. The horrible things he did to the people he even loved, or in high school, to me—he told me at one point I had to stop telling people what he used to do. [Laughs] For me, it was, “What was the worst thing you could do to Hilly Holbrook?” And it was her having the image in her own mind that she had eaten Negro shit. It’s kind of corny, the whole concept, but what saved that scene was Sissy Spacek.

Chris Columbus: “Run, Hilly Minny, run!” was a completely improvised line. People were falling down behind the monitor because we had no idea how Sissy was going to react. But the way that scene is shot, it’s a textbook scene of how to direct a comedic moment.

Octavia: And I did the “eat my shit” line about five or six times. That was the fun part!

Stockett: It’s fucking hysterical!

Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/01/12/the-help-an-oral-history-with-viola-davis-octavia-spencer.html

 

 

And here’s Tate Taylor’s contribution from the same interview:

Taylor: What I really, really loved about the Medgar Evers storyline and backdrop was that he was in their neighborhood. While they were doing this clandestine project, this Civil Rights leader who’s their neighbor gets murdered, and their characters are wondering, “What’s going to happen to us?”

Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/01/12/the-help-an-oral-history-with-viola-davis-octavia-spencer.html

 

 

That’s right, Tate Taylor admits that he “loved” the Medgar Evers storyline because Evers was the in fictional neighborhood of Aibileen and Minny. And although a real live person, a civil rights icon was brutally murdered, Taylor’s hyped about the female Amos n’ Andy team of Aibileen and Minny wondering what will happen to them.

But that’s not all. Taylor was also quoted as saying “My key objective was to give this movie street cred especially within the African-American community, to represent them and not sugarcoat it” as reported to LA Times reporter Nicole Sperling

Reprinted by http://www.kansascity.com/2011/08/05/3058228/the-help-actresses-talk-roles.html

 

 

Between quotes like that, in addition to claiming that watching Viola Davis pretend to take a crap was worse than seeing a lynching in an interview with The Grio, it’s hard to fathom that either Stockett or Taylor understood what construed a stereotype vs. an admirable black character. With these two at the helm, and with no one in Stockett’s publishing house or even Dreamworks venturing to correct them, The Help simply fell back on the caricatures of old.

Delilah from the 1934 movie Imitation of Life, played by Louise Beavers grinning in the kitchen

 

 

Aibileen and Minny having a ball in the kitchen, as the whitewashing of segregation via The Help returns

 

 

Now if you’re asking yourself, how come all this wasn’t brought out by the media early on?

Because this was supposed to be a “feel-good” story all the way around. The Help was a popular novel (and still is) that spawned a hit movie. And I suspect articles mentioning Stockett boosted sales. No one wanted to put a damper on her success. no one wanted to point out the contradictions to Taylor, just like the huge Medgar Evers error in the book. And it also seems as though far too many were willing to overlook the red flags that were there. But this was also about profit. And while I do think a few people got involved because they believed in the “message” of the story, there’s a taint to all this that overrides any excuse that the end justified the means.

An end such as, “more people now know about what African Americans went through during segregation thanks to the book and the movie.”

Really? Then what’s the American Education System for? Or is it really that hard to use GOOGLE to find out what happened during segregation? And what of the documentaries and African American writers from that time period, who actually risked their lives to march for freedom like Anne Moody, who penned her first person account in the novel Coming of Age in Mississippi.

 

Anne Moody at Jackson, Ms. lunch counter sit in with Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Hunter Grey Bear. Their real life courage in 1963 puts the “feel good” premise of The Help to shame.

 

 

 

But aside from that, was The Help really created out of admiration and a desire to tell the story of the many unsung domestics who toiled under the opressive system of segregation? Or was it just a means to an end by southern friends (and their ambitious “good friend”) who realized their plan could be a ticket to publishing gold and Hollywood? As well as a publisher and movie studio willing to go along, without question?

It should also be pointed out that Stockett’s agent and publisher were involved with polishing up the manuscript, as revealed in their own published interviews.
But what of the great roles Taylor and Stockett created? Even though errors were made, surely these roles make the whole thing worth it you say?

Yes, the blindly loyal, affable maid of Aibileen and the grousing, comedic maid Minny, caricatures that return like a bad nightmare. These tropes were around prior to Stockett and Taylor’s collaboration. And while Minny was the role that helped launch their “friend” Octavia Spencer’s career, the actress/comedian’s involvement in all this also brings up troubling questions.

For almost a year both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis were the belles of the ball, with many reviewers praising their performances, as they were two bright spots in the film.

Spencer, Davis, and also Cicely Tyson gave the movie the gift of their serious acting chops, along with Sissy Spacek and Allison Janney. But imo, the maid roles also reinforced sterotypes. For more, please see this post

 

Here’s what Kathryn Stockett reveals about Spencer’s early part in all this:

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

 

Over done angry black woman pose of a full stare down

 

 

Over done angry black woman pose featuring hand on hip

 

 

The Audible.com interview was in early December of 2009. An even earlier interview has Stockett saying this, when Spencer snagged the part of Minny for the audio version of The Help (items in bold are my doing):

“It’s amazing,” she says, with special compliments to Octavia Spencer, the actress who voices the sections by Minny, a stubborn maid whose mouth gets her in trouble.

“Octavia is feisty,” Stockett says of her friend. “I begged them to give that role to Octavia and … it’s amazing.”

Spencer, an actress from Montgomery, Ala., and now in Los Angeles, says she has read the book three times and listened to it twice.

“I love this book. If I weren’t friends with Kathryn, I would still love this book.”

Read the entire interview here:

http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2009/may/22/voices_past_remembered_new_book83144/

 

 

Notice as if on cue, how Spencer jumps in and reiterates how much she loves the book and also states she’s “friends” with Stockett. Now read what another interviewer writes about Spencer’s role:

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

Link: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/kathryn-stocketts-southern-discomfort/article2012818/singlepage/#articlecontent

 

 

Here’s the hard part about all this. Because even Stockett reveals that she and Octavia Spencer weren’t really “friends” in older interviews (items in bold are my doing):

“I had an actress friend, uh she was really an acquaintance at the time. Her name is Octavia Spencer and she’s so amazingly talented. She um, you know she… I would watch her at parties and I would watch her mannerisms and her gestures and she’s just hysterical. And she’s very well educated and extremely intelligent and but you know, Octavia, she will tell you like it is.

And I started picking up on that and trying to incorporate that in the character Minny. And uh, still not knowing Octavia very well when I approached her I said hey, I wrote a book and you’re one of the main characters. She just rolled her eyes and walked away.”

“Oh Gosh, she was so nice, she went on tour with me. She read the African American parts and I read the white parts. And it was quite a show.”

Link: http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

 

 

“The film rights to The Help have been acquired by Stockett’s great friend Tate Taylor, whom she grew up with in Jackson. ‘It’s scary putting a part of your financial and professional future in the hands of a good friend, even if you believe in them, because he’s still on the cusp – he hasn’t had huge success yet, but he’s talented and I know he will.’ Tate introduced her to the actress Octavia Spencer, who was the inspiration for Minny Jackson in the book. (Her heart sank when Stockett gave her the manuscript to read, worried that she might appear as a character like Mammy from Gone With the Wind. ‘And then I read it and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was brilliant.’)”

Read the entire interview here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

 

 

Here’s what Stockett and Taylor revealed last year, regarding how Stockett “met” Spencer:

TT: She [Octavia Spencer] was my roommate for five years until last October. So, it’s very incestuous and friendly. I did a short film called “Chicken Party,” it’s the first thing I ever did, and we were doing the sound mix and Larry Blake did our sound mix and we picked him because he was in New Orleans so we could have a reason to go to New Orleans for a sound mix. 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.

Link: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

 

 So now, exactly when did their “friendship” or “agreement” begin? When Spencer was convinced that by promoting the book and acting as a buffer for any criticism, particularly from African Americans, she’d get the role of Minny, or when she read the novel, warts and all,  and still proclaimed that:

“This White author wrote from the perspective of Black maids and I think she got it right.” – quote by Octavia Spencer from a Jet Magazine interview

http://www.myjet247.com/Entertainment/Content.aspx?topic=Actresses_address_controversy_over_The_Help_

 

 

I’d have to disagree whether Stockett “got it right.” One glaring example out of many is Minny’s obsession over food, from the novel (Minny salivated over pork chops “hot out the pan” in the book) which was made even more stereotypical in the movie:

I watch the chicken sizzle, try to forget she’s [Celia Foote] here. Frying chicken always makes me feel a little better about life. I almost forget I’m working for a drunk. (Minny, Pg 224)

But Minny’s reference to herself was switched in the film by screenwriter/director Tate Taylor to “Frying chicken just tend to make you feel better about life” as if these are wise words to live by, and simply reaffirms that Stockett, Taylor and Spencer ignored the negative historical significance of pairing an African American with a lingering stereotype. Far too often in the book and the movie, the dialogue, images and scenes of African Americans are simply caricatures. The maids of the The Help are relegated to living out their tale in three distinct areas: Children. Kitchen. Church.

1950s bigoted advertising

 

 

The movie poster for Tate Taylor’s short film Chicken Party:

 

Tate Taylor’s Chicken Party, starring Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney and of all things, “fried chicken”

 

 

 

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you’ll note that I’ve gone over how pairing African Americans with chicken was an insult during and even before segregation. Mary J. Blige found that out the hard way when she unwisely did the “chicken video” for Burger King:

 

Mary J Blige Chicken loving Burger King commercial from  GAWKER.com

 

 

Link: http://gawker.com/5898714/heres-the-pulled-mary-j-blige-burger-king-commercial

 

 

 

The commercial was pulled and Mary issued an apology to her fans, which reminded me of Gladys Knight’s ill conceived pairing with Aunt Jemima some years ago, where she too ended up dropping out after public outcry.

 

When 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 was held. Here’s what one observer recounted on his blog:

A woman in the audience took Stockett to task on the inclusion of sensitive historical moments in the book and her decision to weave them into the fabric of her fictitious story. (Stockett peppers the novel with real life news stories of the time: the murder of Medgar Evers, JFK’s assassination, for example.) But Spencer jumped in, reminding the woman (and everyone else in the audience) that The Help is not a non-fiction book and that it’s Stockett’s job as a fiction author to entertain, not give history lessons with her novel. “It’s your job as parents to teach your children about our history,” Spencer said. And before switching gears, Stockett quickly interjected, “I just made this shit up!” The entire crowd erupted in applause.”

See more of Stockett repeating that phrase here

 

 

Spencer was acting as a sort of buffer between Stockett and those who would be critical not just of the movie, but also the book even before this encounter. Whether this was part of her “agreement” will have to wait for a tell all book. But Spencer’s accolades for Stockett’s novel now appear suspect, especially in light of the author’s reveal of an “agreement” of sorts, which may have included the role of Minny.

 

From early Feb 2009, before the film was even cast:

 

 

Link: http://calitreview.com/2526   Spencer’s comment is the second one at the beginning of the comment thread, so you’ll have to load up all the older comments. The screen shot above shows how it looked originally, now all comments look like this:

 

Octavia Spencer response to review on The Help via The California Literary Review site

 

 

Apparently Taylor believed Spencer would be a sure thing:

“Octavia had the part period. Octavia’s been in everything I ever directed – same with Alison Janney. I was so excited when I was reading her book and I was like, “Oh my God Charlotte Phelan. this can be Alison!” I was so excited when I was reading her book and I was like, “Oh my God Charlotte Phelan. this can be Alison!” So that was there and I always wanted Viola and I mean really I prepared myself for this never happening again quite like this. The whole experience from everybody you’ll probably talk to – we just had the greatest time. Dreamworks was amazing, they just did not rock the boat, they saw this dynamic we all had as life-long friends and luckily people were talented in our group and they said, “Okay! Please, this is great.” So it just worked out.”

Link: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

 

While on Twitter I had the chance to correspond with one of the executive producers last year. He in turn mentioned Spencer often, which made me think the actress was being utilized (notice I said utilized and not used, because I now think Spencer may have been fine with all this from the get-go) as a resource on all things African American. At one point he relayed to another poster that I follow, of Spencer’s willingness to speak before her students. I bring this up because at the time, there was a fear that any dissention would hinder the film’s progress, or as it was relayed to me, that films like The Help (with black actresses sharing the lead) would be hard to make in the future if this movie didn’t make a profit.

 

Okay, so now it’s a year later since that twitter discussion. And guess what?

 

Nothing’s changed. Spencer did win the Oscar, but the best that can be said is at least she’s still working. And Viola Davis has supporting roles in a few high profile projects, as well as forming her own production company with her husband. But movie’s with either actress, or even other black actresses featured in ground breaking roles hasn’t happened. It’s business as usual for Hollywood.

 

Octavia Spencer will forever be linked with The Help. It’s the film that first brought her into the public eye.

 

Spencer did what she had to do, though as the pieces begin to fit together with this band of “friends” their agreement now seems coldly calculated and manipulative. Hollywood, as well as the UK awarded Spencer with best supporting actress honors. But I can’t “help” but go back to what this commenter on The Root.com stated:

“Oh, but you can certainly expect Viola Davis and/or Octavia Spencer to win Oscars for their performances in this film. I think the sad reality of that is that they won’t so much win for the quality of their performances as much as they’re going to win for what it is, precisely, that they’re performing.” – Mr. Robert Jones Jr.

 

Kathryn Stockett’s quote in the back of her novel now seems ironic but appropriate to apply to their “agreement” (items in bold are my doing):

 

“There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.” -  Howell Raines quote referenced by Kathryn Stockett

 

The African American female as nurturing caretaker and humorous domestic is as American as apple pie. It is an image of comfort, and one that will remain so long as there are those in position to keep pedaling this caricature as “admirable” and “authentic” and black entertainers go along for whatever reason.

For as Viola Davis once proclaimed:

“Damn, this is the best role for an African American and I’m going to miss it!” – Quote from actress Viola Davis

Link: http://collider.com/viola-davis-the-help-interview/108173/

 

 

THE LOOK OF EMPOWERMENT. Viola as Aibileen showing just what Kathryn Stockett thought it will take to make a black woman break down during segregation. Being separated from Miss Skeeter and Mae Mobley

 

 

“I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.” – Quote from Viola Davis

Link: http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/08/04/the-help-this-weeks-cover/

 

 

And then sadly, also wound up admitting (items in bold are my doing):

“Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not take the role because you feel in some ways it’s not a good message to send to Black people?” – Viola Davis, in a quote from Essence Magazine

“I’m playing a maid, a black actress playing a maid in 2011 in Hollywood, is a lot of pressure. You don’t play a maid. That is something you don’t do. When you play a maid where a white woman has written a story and a white man is directing it, so there is no way that it’s gonna be. . . I’m essentially playing a Mammy. So I felt a lot of pressure. Absolutely. And then and of course pressure from the readers who all wanted Oprah to play the role. And saw her as being seventy years old and about two hundred and fifty pounds or you know, yeah, I felt a lot of pressure. But it’s like Tate says, if you work from that point of pressure and fear, your work is gonna crack. At some point you just have to leave it alone. And know that we have our own standard of excellence . . .”

Link: Atlanta Mom’s on The Move http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc

 

See how an interviewer unwittingly cuts Davis off, when she tries to bare her wounded soul. I review it in this post

For more on where The Help went wrong, also see:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/ten-issues-that-tarnish-the-help/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/the-affection-myth/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/director-of-the-help-claims-criticism-is-cause-hes-not-african-american/

 

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