The movie adaptation of the novel “The Help” arrives in theaters tomorrow. Less than a week later, the lawsuit against Kathryn Stockett, the author of “The Help,” will return to a courthouse in Mississippi.
A hearing will be held Aug. 16 in the case of Ablene Cooper — an African American nanny and housekeeper who works for Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law — vs. Stockett, the Jackson, Miss., native who wrote the enormously popular novel about ‘60s-era black maids and the abuse they often endure from the white, upper-class social climbers who employ them. At that hearing in Hinds County Circuit Court, a judge will decide whether to grant Stockett’s motion to have the case dismissed, or whether the suit over the allegedly unjust use of Cooper’s likeness in the novel has enough merit to move forward.
Cooper first filed suit against Stockett in February of this year, almost exactly two years to the day after “The Help” was first published. According to the case, Cooper feels that the central African American maid in the novel — a woman named Aibileen Clark and portrayed in the film by Viola Davis — was based largely on her, a contention Stockett denies.
The case, in which Cooper seeks $75,000 in damages, also claims that Stockett was asked specifically not to use Cooper’s name and likeness, which bears some resemblances to the character’s; in addition to the similarity of the first names, both women have a gold tooth, often go by the nickname “Aibee” and have mourned the death of grown sons.
“What she did, they said it was wrong,” Cooper told the New York Times back in February, referring to her employers. “They came to me and said, ‘Ms. Abie, we love you, we support you,’ and they told me to do what I got to do.”
For her part, Stockett says she hardly knows the woman and did not base the soft-spokenly proud Aibileen on her. In this week’s Entertainment Weekly cover story about the film, Stockett says of Cooper: “I don’t know this person. ... I’ve met her, like, ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ You could probably add it up to 15 to 20 seconds of hellos.”
If the case gets dismissed next week per Stockett’s legal request, that will most likely put an end to the debate over Ablene vs. Aibileen, although, as Cooper’s attorney Edward Sanders notes, his client could still appeal that decision. If it doesn’t, the case will proceed and perhaps stretch into awards season, a time when Davis’s name may justifiably be bandied about as a potential Oscar contender for her performance in “The Help.” In fact, the quality of her performance as Aibileen may be the one thing on which most everyone can agree.