Today we continue our coverage of The Help, the period drama adapted from the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, starring Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, and Sissy Spacek. As an intimate look at the relationships between African American maids and the white families they worked for in the 1960s South, The Help opened this Wednesday with an impressive start, earning an estimated $5 million it’s first day in theaters, and $25.5 million over the weekend.
Earlier this month we had the opportunity to sit down with novelist Kathryn Stockett, director Tate Taylor, songwriter Mary J. bilge (who wrote an original song for the film) and the cast of The Help to talk about bringing these characters, and this tale, to life on the big screen.
Last week we brought you the story of the intimate ties between the novelist and director which led to the development of the film. Today, we continue to untangle the interpersonal weave that connects the creators of The Help.
First, take a look at the synopsis for the film below:
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
Casting The Help: Life Imitates Art And Back Again
In addition to the bond between the screenwriter/director and the author of the source material, the very woman Kathryn Stokkett used as inspiration for Minny (one of the central characters in her book) would eventually end up playing the role in the movie. Octavia Spencer and director Tate Taylor met on A Time To Kill and moved to Los Angleles together, where they were roommates for five years (the two continued to live together as late as this past October). Spencer met Stockett when the author came to visit Taylor in New Orleans, as he and Spencer completed the sound mix on his first short film, Chicken Party.
Spencer describes the circumstances thusly:
“At that particular time I was a 100 pounds heavier, on a diet, and we decided to go to New Orleans…in August…let’s just say that all of those elements, being hungry and grumpy led to her (Stockett) finding the idea of what Minny should be.”
Stockett elaborates on the tie between Minny and Octavia:
“Octavia had actually toured with me when the book first came out. And you know when I first started writing the character of Minny I just kept thinking about Octavia. You know she is very well-educated, she’s a writer, she writes poetry – she isn’t Minny. But there’s something about Octavia’s mannerisms that can really take you and the way she looks you in the eye and you know exactly what she’s thinking. And so I loved to draw on that when I was writing the character of Minny, and so you know, as she toured with me it was so cool to hear her read those lines. And for me that’s really what locked it in. I didn’t have any say so over casting except that.”
Take a look at the featurette below which highlights some of the characteristics that are essentially Minny in the film:
“Octavia had the part period,” Taylor elaborated on the whole of the casting process. “And then Ally…You know Octavia’s been in everything I ever directed – same with Alison Janney – so I was so excited when I was reading her book… I was like, ‘Oh my God Charlotte Phelan — this can be Alison!’”
As to the remainder of the casting, Tate Taylor says he is prepared for this to be a singularly remarkable moment in his career where he (almost effortlessly) has been afforded the ideal cast. In addition to the gift of having a synchronistic evolution of Spencer and Janney’s roles, the director always wanted to have Viola Davis for the leading role of Aibileen – a role the actress says was quite a boon in that there is a notable lack of rich roles for women, and African-American women in particular.
“The deprivation. The deprivation is something else, and so every black actress came out of the woodwork, who shall remain nameless.”
As to the welcome (but unforeseen) blessing that Emma Stone’s current notoriety has been for the film, Taylor had the following to say:
“Well we didn’t know! That was what was so great. I read Skeeter as a young Joan Cusack – who I just think is hysterical – and that’s who I wanted to find. Who’s Joan Cusack at 20? Somebody find me that… and I met Emma Stone in this hotel, I felt so naïve and green, I thought I was going to look stupid because she is the first person I ever met and we met for drinks here and I thought, ‘I’m gonna look so dumb saying I met Skeeter with the very first person.’ I thought, ‘Should I tell them? They’re gonna think, ‘Oh he’s such a green horn he thinks he’s found his lead.’ I thought, ‘But I did though!’ And I met other people and I said, ‘Oh it’s Emma.’ And Dreamworks said, ‘Great! We don’t know her but lets watch some stuff she did – and “Paper Man,” we were able to watch that one day, and then the next day “Easy A” and her range was just incredible. And Dreamworks went, ‘you’re right lets do it, she’s going to be fantastic.’ And then she became Emma Stone. I wish we could say we planned it, but that’s just how everything with this movie has worked out.”
Bringing A Painful History To Life:
The Help, addresses a past that many don’t want to think about. It does so with an eye toward exploring the more day-to-day, year-to-year, interpersonal dynamics of the South during the heat of the horror that was Jim Crow and all that preceded it and followed in its wake — rather than the larger, more sweeping sociopolitical ramifications.
It is a history that Emma Stone has said that many of her friends, and the people of her generation, have received very little education about. A history that still echoes in the present. For Tate Taylor The Help offers a vision of where we have been and how far we have come.
It may also offer an opportunity to take an honest look at where we are now.
“We’re not educated,” Viola Davis said of the history of racism in the United States.
“It’s swept under the rug. It’s the big white elephant in the room of our culture. It’s probably a part of our hypocrisy, that we’ve had a brutal history of race, a three hundred and forty six-year history. So, I mean, I’m well aware of it because I made a point of making myself well aware of it, even at a young age, in my twenties. So, I knew what the day-to-day life was like, and I think that if anything I hope the book – I know the book and the movie will bring that to life. I’m going to say what I’m going to say with a grain of salt; you hope that while people are being entertained and are laughing – we as Americans just want to be entertained and part of that is to escape whatever ills are going on in our personal lives and our political lives — but I hope that people aren’t laughing and having such a good time that they miss, even within that laughter and all of that, the larger message that it does have an impact on people. We always want to shrink from it. I find in my life that whenever I’ve shrunk from anything it’s always come back to bite me right in the behind or it always keeps that dysfunction going. There’s enough of that. I think we’ve matured enough as a culture to step away from that. So, I hope that people will take that away from the movie.”
When asked if in addition to providing historical context, the film opens up the dialogue for things that are still happening today, in a sense making it easier because it’s set in the past, Davis replied:
“I hope. I mean, I think that once Obama became president there was a sigh of relief from people, thinking that racism is over. It’s like Hilary Clinton, if she were elected president would sexism be over? I mean, come on. We all know that whatever took three hundred and forty six years of doing is not going to be undone in fifty years. It’s just not. I hope that it opens dialogue with people. I think that people in general are, and I know I am – I’ll put myself in there – afraid of honest discourse. We always want to be in agreement with each other because we want to get along. Some serious things are happening in terms of classicism. The class structure in this country is so polarized. Racism. I mean, you really see it coming out with Obama being president, all of those things. You hope that it opens up a dialogue. You just hope, but what can you do. You can’t change people overnight.”
Songwriter Mary J. Blige felt a personal connection to the film in that her aunt had been a maid in the South at the same time as the film’s central characters. In addition to the link that Blige saw with her family’s history, the singer saw a tie to the issues even she, a megastar, faces today.
“It hit me really, really hard because we’re living in a time where things have changed, but they haven’t. I still go through things. As an African American woman it’s hard for me to get magazine covers because of my skin color. That’s what my publicist, what some of them have come back and told me. So, it hurt me to sit in that theater and still have to deal with that and it’s still going on there. The beautiful thing about Aibileen in that film is that they learn how to navigate and get around that system. The only way that you can get around that system is that you have to believe in yourself and what you have. You have to walk in love and try to forgive those people that want to put you in those terrible situations because that’s their issue. It’s not even a skin thing now. It’s just their issue.”
Bryce Dallas Howard plays the villain in the piece, a woman entrenched in the polluted beliefs of her time and her fore-bearers. When Howard was asked if she was aware of the history the actress responded that she was, but that working on the film acted as a catalyst for a greater understanding of the times we currently live in for her as well.
“Obviously from history books, from talking to people who lived through the civil rights movement, I knew it was really bad. But to actually play one of the bad guys, and to realize how much they thought they were right, was really scary. It was really, really scary because you think about stuff now — I’m privately a political person but not publicly one — and so often I’ll be like ‘What on EARTH is going on here? I mean what is the problem, what is the issue!?’ And after playing this character, realizing the people who are against certain civil rights things that we’re facing right now, actually think they’re right and that it’s best for the country or whatever they’re justifying is so scary because how can you argue with that? You just have to be stronger. You just have to win and that’s why, in the civil rights movement in the sixties, it got to the point where people were sacrificing their lives. Not just their well-being – people were dying because that was the only way for there to be change, and that was so scary.”
Whatever you take away from the film – whether it be an eye-opening perspective on the past or a gut-firing doorway into things that need looking at in the present, The Help is a film that hopes to open the path to conversation — mirroring the trajectory of the central characters in the film itself.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc