Why ‘The Help’ rules the box office
When director Tate Taylor, a Mississippi native, set out to adapt the novel “The Help” into a movie, he knew he had to convince his skeptical Hollywood associates that the only way to do it right was to take the filming home to the Deep South.
“The air looks like there’s syrup floating around in it,” he told me when we talked in Washington, D.C. recently. “You don’t get that in Toronto.”
Mississippi was a hard sell for some of L.A.’s more provincial studio executives. “They were concerned about whether they could get copy paper there for the office,” he laughed. “I told them, ‘Guys, it’s Mississippi. It’s not the Congo.’”
For Taylor, it wasn’t just about scouting for the right visual effect. It was personal. The best-selling novel, written by Kathryn Stockett, paints an intimate portrait of African-American maids and the white women they served in the early 1960s, at the dawn of the civil rights era. It draws a complex web of love, guilt and interconnectedness between white and black Mississippians.
Taylor says he didn’t want the story of the South in the hands of people who didn’t understand the South.
“I just wanted to tell the truth and tell it properly and tell it accurately as a Southern man from Mississippi. So many times Hollywood gets it wrong. They play up the hatred and dumb down the African-American characters or just make them one note as these victims … And being from there, I guess I felt like you have a pass to talk about it. It’s part of our lives too, black or white.”
Taylor grew up with Stockett in Jackson, Mississippi. They met in preschool and became friends as, he says, two artsy oddballs. Although they didn’t grow up in the ’60s, both are white and had African-American caretakers when they were children.
“Kathryn wrote [The Help as] a tribute to [her caretaker] Demetrie, who basically co-raised her with her mother. It spoke to me, made me think of Carol Lee, who is the one who served that role in my life and made me want to tell the story. These women are usually plot points. They’re just serving food and you don’t really get much beyond that.”
The movie goes far beyond just serving food. White, wealthy Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), desperate to find a job in journalism, sets out to write about the black maids of her married friends. The distant-feeling civil rights movement plays out on the television news, but Skeeter feels “the help” has stories to tell. Compassionate Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and fiery Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) warily allow her into their stories and their lives. As Skeeter examines their lives as well as her own relationship with the family maid Constantine, she discovers powerful examples of mistreatment, intimidation and fear.
She also discovers something even more powerful: love and pride. Aibileen, who has made a career taking care of white babies, finds meaning in teaching her little charges their own worth. Minny makes the best chocolate pie and fried chicken in town, and she knows it. The women are good at what they do and take pride in their work, although they might have chosen something different if they had been given the opportunity.
There is deep love between Aibileen and her babies, between Minny and her childish new employer Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) and between Skeeter and Constantine, which makes society-enforced betrayal all that more painful. The institutional racism that rules their lives doesn’t fully overcome human nature, but it pressures otherwise decent people like Skeeter’s mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) to behave indecently and gives naturally hateful people like social climber Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) free reign to exert power over unfortunate women. Yet Aibileen chooses to love her enemies, as her Bible teaches, and Skeeter chooses to honor the lessons Constantine taught her.
It is this willingness to embrace the South in all its complexity that has kept the book version of “The Help” atop the New York Times bestseller list and the movie version atop the box office. While the story is about racism, it’s also about something bigger: life, love and fully-formed women.
Although he’s now a successful Hollywood director, Tate Taylor continues to stay true to his Mississippi roots. His childhood caretaker Carol Lee appears briefly in the movie. When we spoke, he was gleeful at the prospect of flying Carol Lee to the film’s premiere and walking the red carpet with her.
Rebecca Cusey is a movie critic and entertainment reporter.