‘The Help’ movie release brings new attention to author, lawsuit


Cast member Viola Davis arrives at the premiere of "The Help" in Beverly Hills, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. (Matt Sayles/AP)
August 11, 2011

‘The Help,’ the film adaptation of the massively popular Kathryn Stockett novel, arrived in theaters this week to mixed reviews. The Post’s Ann Hornaday writes:

Skeeter (Emma Stone) is under her own pressures to hew to traditional definitions of Southern womanhood and get married like her friends, who inherit their low-wage servants much as some of their ancestors might have inherited enslaved people. But Skeeter's discomfort serves as an inadequate index for the pain and suffering of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who endanger their very lives by speaking candidly about segregation's grimmest realities.

One of those truths, which "The Help" deserves praise for bringing to light, is that racism should be understood less as a matter of black grievance than of unexamined white privilege and pathology. And no one is more race-crazy than Hilly, portrayed by Dallas Howard in "The Help's" weakest performance as a cruel, snake-eyed witch whose villainy extends to making Minny use an outside toilet even during a hurricane.

Hilly's monstrousness is in keeping with "The Help's" tendency to reduce its characters to stock types, but it has the effect of enabling white viewers to distance themselves from racism's subtler, more potent expressions. (Far more troubling than Hilly's brand of insanity is the disapproving but passive acquiescence of her mother, played with vinegary brio by Sissy Spacek.)

With clunky, episodic pacing, Taylor traces the genesis and effect of Skeeter's project, including "The Help's" climactic sequence, when Minny performs an act of subterfuge that, depending on taste and perspective, will play like a heroic act of subversion or a crass burlesque. Surely both taste and perspective will inform whether viewers will find "The Help" a revelatory celebration of interracial healing and transcendence, or a patronizing portrait that trivializes those alliances by reducing them to melodrama and facile uplift.

Director Tate Taylor had an advantage when it came to getting the film made, writes The Post’s Jen Chaney. He’s childhood friends with the author..

Taylor, a Caucasian man from the South, had to guide a cast of women, white and black, through the often ugly and racist terrain of the civil rights movement. Spencer, 39, insists that neither gender nor racial divides created discord on-set.

“The beauty of having my white friend direct it was that I realized this was just the world I was creating then,” she says. “And if anyone knew the sensitivities, Tate did, and understood where we had to be emotionally.”

Says Taylor: “At the end of the day, we would wrap and 1963 would come to a close. And literally, in 30 minutes, we’d all be eating dinner together, laughing, at somebody’s house.”

The two nostalgically describe a kumbaya vibe during the production, which took place in Greenwood, Miss., 96 miles north of Jackson. But both are keenly aware of the less positive perceptions of the novel written by their mutual friend.

While “The Help” has generated praise and phenomenal sales — it sat atop the Los Angeles Times bestseller list for more than a year after its February 2009 release — some reviewers and readers were uncomfortable with subservient African American women finding liberation via the open-minded and white character Skeeter (played in the movie by Emma Stone), who writes a life-altering tell-all about the indignities they endure.

Spencer says she understands why some people assume the story will dredge up antiquated mammy stereotypes because she jumped to similar conclusions when Stockett — who, yes, met Spencer through Taylor and is now a close friend — first showed her the manuscript.

“She had written it in a dialect,” Spencer says, “and [after] the very first line I was like: Oh, really?” But after reading the whole novel, Spencer found the characters nuanced.

And nuance is something Taylor says he was determined to bring to the film adaptation, which portrays African American women of the era who weren’t all docile and obedient.

“People insinuate African Americans were all victims until Lyndon Johnson,” he says. “And it’s not true. That isn’t depicted much in cinema.”

“The Help’s” release coincides with a hearing next week in a lawsuit against Stockett over the novel, Cheney reports.

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.”

Stockett spoke to The Post’s Lonnae O’Neal Parker in 2010 about adjusting to the success — and criticism — of the novel.

Former National Urban League president and Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan called Stockett to say that as a young chauffeur for the mayor of Atlanta, he could relate to her characters. But the past year has also featured critics, for her use of black dialect and for a white woman telling -- and making money from -- black stories.

It's a criticism that "makes me cringe," Stockett told NPR in December.

"I agree" that black voices are undervalued, Stockett says. But she set out to write one story, a piece of fiction with voices that sounded to her ears like music, that were close to her heart. "I don't think I got it right by any means," she says. "I wish I could change little nuances."

"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. It can sound almost like a plea.

That's been a daunting part of this phenomenal year for Stockett, a lesser ghost of Mississippi. This white woman, who never really liked to talk much, is suddenly being asked about history and cultural anthropology, to address and redress, when she really just wanted to write letters from home. So it has also been a time of figuring out her role, which, by the way, can make her relationship with her own help dicey.

"I have a Hispanic housekeeper now, and I don't speak Spanish, so there's not a whole lot of intimacy there. I have a nanny from Georgia, and she's white and she brings her daughter." They are great friends and work well together, but neither relationship exists in the same fraught cocoon as those "help" relationships in the Old South.

In writing a book that tried to imagine what the world looked like from the help's side, Stockett says, she is now keenly aware of how she treats her own. "I think about the fact that my Hispanic nanny has to leave her own child at home to come clean up after mine. I tell her to bring her kids," Stockett says.

"I think as a Southern white woman, it's just this instinct that we feel guilty when someone else comes in our house doing our chores, cleaning my kitchen. . . . We try to treat our help with almost kid gloves, maybe, cause we're reflecting on how they were treated in the past."

More from the Washington Post:

Watch “The Help” trailer

Video: Emma Stone and the cast of “The Help” attend premiere

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