Thankfully, first-time author Kathryn Stockett did not give up when her novel “The Help,” was rejected 60 times. When someone finally had the wisdom to recognize its worth, and it was published in 2009, the book sold more than three million copies and spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Millions more of us devoured the brilliantly-written, masterfully-plotted book that is based on Stockett’s own white, Christian, southern upbringing and her close relationship with the family maid who died when she was 16. Years after moving to New York City, Stockett decided to write about that relationship that was so intensely influential in her life. It took five years for her to paint a vivid picture of the humiliation black maids in Jackson, Mississippi endured in the early 1960s by their white employers who trusted them to raise their children but often times not to polish the silver.
Now 2 ½ years after the book was published, fans can see Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek and others bring their favorite characters to life in the film that opened on August 10, 2011.
I admire Kathryn Stockett and Tate Taylor, the Director and Screenwriter of the film for tackling such a controversial subject. When the book was going to be made into a movie, Stockett reached out to Taylor, her Jackson childhood friend who had also grown up having a black maid. Taylor had only directed one small, unheard of, independent film that only grossed about $6,500 at the box office and had no credentials to direct a cast of stars in a much anticipated DreamWorks movie. Though Stockett was advised to choose another director, she remained adamant saying no one else knew the story like he did.
Another first-timer associated with the film is lifestyle TV host, Nate Berkus who came on board as an executive producer before the book was even published. It was Nate who helped connect the filmakers with the necessary financing.
“I’ve been really nervous because this is my first time working in movies, but now that I’ve seen the finished film I’m elated,” Nate said. “We were all ecstatic when the book hit No. 1 on the New York Times, but that didn’t mean it would automatically become the film Kathryn had envisioned. When a great book makes it to the screen as a great movie, it’s no small miracle.”
LIFE LESSON: Kathryn Stockett was a first-time author, Tate Taylor was in essence a first-time movie director; and Nate Berkus was a first-time movie producer. My hat is off to all of them for teaching us a great lesson about stretching beyond what we think we are capable of doing. It’s about believing in yourself and being willing to bring all your gifts to the table. It’s about looking within and finding your true purpose, sometimes in the most unexpected places.
In anticipation of the movie, I had the opportunity to interview two great actresses who appear in the film: Allison Janney, best known for her role on “The West Wing,” who plays Skeeter’s mom, Charlotte. And the legendary actress, Miss Cicely Tyson, who plays Skeeter’s beloved nanny Constantine. Both of these women are remarkable and in the future you will be able to read my posts about each of them as well as Nate Berkus who I also had the pleasure of interviewing.
I deliberately wrote this post prior to the movie coming out because it isn’t intended to be a review. Most people usually don’t expect movies to measure up to the books they were adapted from, which doesn’t make them bad films, just great books.
Honestly, I don’t care what rating “The Help” gets or whether it is praised by some and panned by others. I know I’m going to love it. Just as Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, I refuse to assume the role of movie critic and sit in judgment; I refuse to offer disparaging comments and criticism about a film that reminds us, even if it is in a commercially entertaining way, of the most shameful time in American history when so many ignorant, misguided, un-evolved white folks in the South were filled with such hatred and superiority that they felt justified in committing despicable acts of violence to other human beings.
“The Help” shines a light on the brazen hubris certain human beings possess, but it is told with such warmth and humor that along with feeling anger, sadness and shame, you find yourself laughing, weeping, and ultimately cheering when a sisterhood of suppressed, downtrodden, courageous women come together and find their voice at a very dangerous time when laws are being challenged and change would force Southerners to treat black people as equals.
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The Help,” is told from the perspective of three women:
Aibileen is a wise and loving maid who has given her heart to the 17 white babies she raised in her lifetime. But Aibileen’s world changed the day her only child, her 24-year old son was killed in a work-related accident. It took five months before Aibileen could lift herself out of bed and go to work for Mrs. Elizabeth Leefolt, a young white woman who just gave birth to her first child, a baby girl named Mae Mobley. Two years later Mae Mobley clings to Aibileen as her maternal figure, while she shies away from her neglectful, self-absorbed mother.
Minny Jackson is short, fat, a great cook, and possibly the sassiest maid in Mississippi. Quick to speak her mind, Minny’s back-talk has cost her many jobs. In addition to the humiliation Minny receives at the hands of her white employers, she also puts up with her husband’s abuse at home. Then one day Aibileen risks her own job to help Minny find a position with a new woman in town who has her own dark secrets.
Then there is Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Pheland, a young white girl whose family owns a cotton plantation that employs many black field hands. After graduating from college Skeeter comes back home to Jackson with dreams of becoming a writer, while her mother, Charlotte’s big dream is for her daughter to get married.
Skeeter is devastated when she learns that her beloved Constantine, the maid who raised her, has abruptly vanished. The story’s subplot has her trying to uncover the real reason despite her mother’s efforts to keep the truth from her.
Then one day during their weekly bridge game, Skeeter’s friend, the obnoxious Hilly Holbrook starts campaigning for white households to have a separate bathroom built for their “colored” help to use, and Skeeter, the only color-blind girl in the group, begins to notice the abuse her friends inflict upon their maids.
That’s when she decides to reveal the truth to the world from the maids’ perspectives by writing a book about it. In the library she comes across a 25 page “Compilation of Jim Crow Laws.”
Here are just a few of the many laws that existed that denied blacks equal rights as human beings.
- No person shall require any white female to nurse in wards or rooms in which negro men are placed.
- It is hereby forever prohibited for a white person to marry anyone except a white person. Any marriage in violation of this section shall be void and punishable by imprisonment not exceeding 12 months or by a fine not exceeding $500 (which may as well have been a million dollars to a black person back then).
- The officer in charge shall not bury any colored persons upon ground used for the burial of white persons.
- Negroes and whites are not allowed to share water fountains, movie houses, public restrooms, grocery stores, ballparks, phone booths, circus shows. Negroes cannot use the same pharmacy or buy postage stamps at the same window as white folks.
Race prejudice is not only a shadow over the colored it is a shadow over all of us, and the shadow is darkest over those who feel it least and allow its evil effects to go on.”
Pearl S. Buck
“Though Skeeter is eager to expose the truth, the maids won’t talk with her. They are afraid of losing their jobs or even worse. Negros have been lynched in Mississippi. While “The Help” is fiction, it is loosely interwoven with fact like the death of Medgar Evans, the real-life civil rights activist with the NAACP who was shot and killed by a member of the KKK on June 12, 1963 in the same Jackson, Mississippi neighborhood where Aibileen and Minnie live.
It takes time and patience for Skeeter to gain the trust of a dozen maids who in the end decide to break the unspoken code of rules and risk everything by sharing secrets about their employers with a white woman. Friendships are lost, and new and unlikely ones are forged as a new sisterhood emerges that threatens to expose the white ladies of Jackson.
“The Help,” touches you in that core place where compassion and human decency reside. Toward the end of the book I could only read one page a night trying to delay saying goodbye to the characters I had come to love. The movie has only been out a few days and I am happy to hear that there is already Oscar buzz about Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s performances.
Coincidentally, or perhaps by design, “The Help” has been released three months after the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Riders – when 400 black and white men and women risked their lives by participating in a bold and dangerous experiment designed to awaken the conscience of a complacent nation. Beginning on May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders challenged the mores of a racially segregated society by boarding a Greyhound bus in a simple but daring plan to violate segregation laws. Their tactic was to have at least one interracial couple sit in adjoining seats and at least one black Freedom Rider sit in the front of the bus.
Here is a clip from the two hour documentary “Freedom Riders,” which was released in May 2011.
An angry mob of Klu Klux Klansmen carrying baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains firebombed the first of the two buses in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama and viciously beat the riders when they tried to escape the smoke and flames.
When reports of the bus burning and beatings reached U.S Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he urged the Freedom Riders to hold back but there was no stopping this movement of people who had too long been suppressed.
Under intense pressure from the Kennedy administration, Alabama Governor John Patterson reluctantly promised to protect the bus from KKK mobs and snipers on the road between Birmingham and Montgomery. However once the bus reached the Montgomery city limits, the Highway Patrol abandoned them. At the bus station, a mob waited for them and once again beat the Freedom Riders with bats and pipes while the local police allowed the beatings to go on uninterrupted.
Behind the scenes, the Kennedy administration arranged a deal with the governors of Alabama and Mississippi. The governors agreed that state police and the National Guard would protect the Riders from mob violence (thereby ending embarrassing media coverage of bloody lawlessness) and, in return, the local police would be allowed to arrest the Freedom Riders for violating segregation ordinances when the buses arrived at depots, even though such arrests violated a Supreme Court decision.
During the summer of 1961, Freedom Riders also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination and sat together in segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels.
That was what was going on in Kathryn Stockett’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi where her characters Aibileen and Minnie and the other black maids lived in silence and fear.
LIFE LESSON: Change only comes when people are willing to stand up for what they believe in. It took tremendous courage for the Freedom Riders to do what they did. On the backs of those brave people, both black and white, things changed for the better.
On September 22, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) bowed to pressure from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and issued orders to take down all Jim Crow signs at all bus depots and train stations in the south. Colored and white signs came down in the terminals and separate drinking fountains, toilets and waiting rooms were consolidated, while lunch counters began serving people regardless of race.
That white uniform was her ‘pass’ to get into white places with us – the grocery store, the state fair, the movies. Even though this was the 70s and the segregation laws had changed, the ‘rules’ had not.”
Kathryn Stockett – Author of “The Help”
While we’ve come a long way from those terrible days, many people in America are still filled with hatred and prejudice. On June 26, 2011 a video camera caught seven white teenagers in Mississippi committing a gruesome hate crime that left 49-year-old James Craig Anderson dead. The suspects reportedly left a Hinds County, Mississippi party with the intention of finding a black victim. They drove to a nearby predominantly black area of Jackson where they attacked Anderson, the first black man they saw upon exiting the highway.
The incident was made available to CNN and shows a group of teens pulling into a parking lot and immediately attacking Anderson. The graphic images then show them pummeling him with punches and kicks. It ends with shocking, detailed footage of one of the teens, identified as 18-year-old Deryl Dedmon, Jr., driving his Ford F250 pickup truck over Anderson as he sought to walk away from the scene of the attack.
Two teens are being held for allegedly beating Anderson repeatedly and yelling racial epithets, including “White Power!” according to witnesses. “This was a crime of hate. Dedmon murdered this man because he was black,” Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith told CNN. Dedmon has been charged with murder and now faces a possible double life sentence. During a bond hearing his attorney told the court he saw nothing to back up what he called the “racial allegations.” The remaining five teens have not been charged.
LIFE LESSON: What causes someone to hate so intensely? Where does that kind of hatred come from? If we look we see discrimination all around us in different degrees. Maybe it’s prejudice against Latinos, or women; perhaps hatred shows up as being homophobic. Maybe it’s obese people that we have little tolerance for, or the handicapped, or the elderly. We can all be more aware and take the time to perform small, random acts of kindness that lets that stranger know that he or she is a worthwhile human being.
Even in the darkest of the darkness, there is evidence that love can overcome evil and change someone’s heart. Here is a clip showing Elwin Wilson, a former member of the Klu Klux Klan who reunited with Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, one of the Freedom Riders he attacked 48 years earlier. It is a touching moment that offers some hope for the future of mankind.
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
When you go and see “The Help,” my advice is to see it with a pure heart and an open mind. Don’t sit in judgement and compare it to the book or to real life events. Don’t criticize, don’t be small-minded and stingy with your praise. Enjoy it for showing us that humanity has made progress. Things aren’t perfect but they are a lot better than they were back in the 1960s. My thanks to all the people involved who brought such a beautiful book and an emotionally satisfying movie to light.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Janney and Miss Cicey Tyson. Allison is so open and friendly and Miss Cicely Tyson is such an extraordinary legend. I know you’ll enjoy reading the full article.