Cast the first stone

Posted on July 31, 2010


Well, most of the casting has been done for the fantasy/scifi novel The Help (Yes. I know the genre is women’s fiction).

But the novel has more in common with the genres of fantasy and scifi. Just look at the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Stepford Wives” husbands that populate the novel. The white southern males are nothing like the ones who ran the real Jackson, Mississippi. I’ve got posts going more into detail on how Stockett skillfully changed who the real villains of segregation were, here and here.

None of the white characters speak with a southern dialect, and the African American vernacular is so broad that it’s often hard to decipher. So I guess I could also say the film should be in the Foreign film category.

There’s been a “Twilight” effect on the making of this film. Plenty of pretty young people have been cast in roles that require some serious acting ability if the movie is to have any credibility. Thankfully, the actresses playing The Help are all seasoned veterans.

Actress Viola Davis will play Aibileen


Actress Cicely Tyson will play Constantine

Actress Octavia Spencer will play Minny



However, there’s one thing. While I believe Octavia Spencer is long overdue for her big break, if she does any facial machinations like this:

Octavia Spencer in the movie “Dinner for Schmucks”









She’ll resemble this:

Actor Mantan Moreland

 Now, this post isn’t about Spencer.  Because this whole thing is bigger than just Kathryn Stockett picking her as the “prototype” African American from an era long past. Perhaps Stockett didn’t know the history of how blacks were negatively portrayed in literature and film. But I’m pretty sure someone close to her did. Whether they chose to take on the responsibility of pointing  it out to her is another matter. And Octavia Spencer is talented. It’s just a shame that she fit the “profile” of a humorous black character that has its roots in the ideology of how blacks were supposed to make white audiences laugh during segregation. Eye stretching, grammar demolishing, and haggling over how much work they had to do…

Sadly, in The Help these characters were resurrected and are now “beloved” so we’ll now be seeing them on the current big screen.

Movie still from The Help


Found a still from the movie. This looks like the scene where the church members are congratulating Aibileen and Minny over the novel.

With the white characters, the casting director went with the promising but much shorter and looking nothing remotely like the book version of Skeeter (fizzy haired blonde, close to six feet tall with a bump on her pointed nose)  actress Emma Stone:

Emma Stone as Skeeter


Allison Janney will play Charlotte Phelan

Charlotte Phelan and her daughter Eugenia aka Skeeter

Allison Janney will play Charlotte Phelan. She’s an award winning actress, and along with Viola Davis (cast as Aibileen) and Cicely Tyson (cast as Constantine) these ladies should give the film some much needed acting chops. It’s interesting that in the casting of the African American actresses, they attempted to stay close to the book. Stockett has most of the maids dark or should I say  “black as asphalt” and “black as night”  as in the book has it. The excuse the author used in the book was that most white residents didn’t want a black domestic that was light (I’m pretty sure Stockett’s idea of a light black person and what the African American community views as “light” are quite different). So Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson and Octavia Spencer are all lovely, brown skinned women. I guess now Stockett realizes there’s no actual “black” complexioned African Americans, contrary to her overboard descriptions in the novel.
No surprise to me that some reviewers think the casting of the African American characters match the book. This is a comment from reviewer Katey Rich of Cinemablend : I get very protective when Yankee actors try to step in and do Southern accents. I’m still skeptical about Stone and Howard in their lead roles, though the casting of the black characters has been spot-on so far, with Viola Davis and Taylor’s friend Octavia Spencer signing on in the main roles.
Oh boy. Like I said, it was expected. Though  I beg to defer with Ms. Rich, since neither Skeeter (who Emma Stone plays) or Hilly (Brice Dallas Howard’s character) have a southern accent in the book. Much like the other white characters they read like Yankees already. So the film should stay true to the book
Here’s the actor playing Johnny Foote (actor Mike Vogel):
Anujanue Ellis plays
Yule May Crookle
Chris Lowell as
Stuart Whitworth
         Jessica Chastain
         as Celia Foote
Shane McRae will play Raleigh Leefolt

Ahna O'Reilly will play Elizabeth Leefolt


Wes Chatham will play Carlton Phelan Jr.



Rounding out the cast is Brice Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook. Brice played in The Village, Terminator Salvation and is in The Twilight Saga; Eclipse (see, there is an actual Twilight connection!).

Brice Dallas Howard will play Hilly Holbrook

Bryce Dallas Howard


Carlton Phelan senior’s name has been changed to Robert Phelan. He’s reportedly being played by Brian Kerwin.

What’s important to remember, like Huffington Post reviewer Jesse Kornbluth wrote, The book was written for whites. So African Americans aren’t the target audience for the movie either, though I suspect a fair share will flock to the theater when the film comes out.
With a bunch of pretty people trying to emote and pretend like the subject matter of the film interests them, the movie should be more  or less a parody of the times, even grander than the book was. The Help, as well as several other Segregation lite novels are really vehicles for young actors like Dakota Fanning (The Secret Life of Bees) and other Hollywood up and comers. These manuscripts will continue to be embraced, and rewarded (Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, where the infantile qualities of the black football player were expanded to make Sandra’s character appear more like a leader). Until more speak up, publishers and filmmakers will have carte blanche to continue churning out these perky, revisionist tales.
Yes, the movie has fallen into the land of stereotype. All through early movie and television history,  white characters were supposed to be good looking on screen, while African Americans were deliberately cast as the opposite.
The late great Lena Horne spoke about the perception whites had with how blacks were supposed to look and act. Per her biography, Lena refused to pass for Hispanic, but chose to proudly flaunt her black heritage. She also refused the domestic parts that came her way, though she didn’t fit the stereotypical “maid” prototype, which was heavy set, dark complexioned and older. Still,  that’s what she was offered.
In casting The Help without diversity on the production team, this bit of crucial info was missed, and so the casting reflects it. But it will be apparent on screen. And since this is 2010, it may be brought up by critics. The discrepancy is just too obvious. And the historical connotation is also plain to see. For those who can’t see it, look at the pic below of  Hattie McDaniel. In old Hollywood, Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers were the prototype of how black domestics were supposed to look on screen, while the white stars were younger, lovely, or older and sophisticated. The Help has not only taken a step back in time, but a big step back in the progress Hollywood has made in casting black actors.

Hattie McDaniels with Olivia De Havilland and Vivian Lee

But then, because the film is only taking cues from the source material, there lies the root of the problem. For a book that claims to show the absurdity of segregation, the author did much to show that Black Americans and White Americans are vastly different, and those differences were broadly emphasized. The cast of the film appears to be a continuation of that mindset.  
There are a few other changes from the novel to the screen for The Help.
Yule May Crookle is now Yule Mae Davis. Gee, I wonder why?
I go more into how Stockett’s  joke backfired in giving Yule Mae a last name based upon her outcome in the novel here:
 Constantine’s last name is now Jefferson, and there’s a Rachel Jefferson in the cast list as opposed to a Lulabelle Jefferson. There will be a Carlton Phelan, but the name will only apply to Skeeter’s brother. As I mentioned previously, Carlton Phelan Sr. has undergone a name change. Brian Kerwin will play Skeeter’s father, whose first name is Robert. No info yet on who’ll play Leroy Jackson, Minny’s abusive husband. If they’re smart, that’s a character they’ll either leave out or completely change. Either way, Minny will still be saddled with the bossy, mouthy maid stereotype.
I expect Sex and the City meets Mad Men as far as the fashion goes. Playing up the fashions during that time, especially since Mad Men is such a hit will probably influence the production.

mad men cast

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