The 'Help' Chronicles: Tate Taylor recalls his Mississippi past in film of '60s race-themed bestseller
Not so long ago, even middle-class white families employed black women as maids and nannies. The silent partner in this transaction was racial inequality. If your skin was black, this was probably the best-paying work available. Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling book The Help tells of white and black women in that world. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the Civil Rights Movement, the novel looks at the domestic sphere, not the political one, chronicling the mixture of injustice and compassion that characterizes the relationships between black maids and white women. Just two-and-a-half years after its publication, DreamWorks and Disney will release a filmed adaptation of the novel on August 10.
The director and screenwriter of The Help is Stockett’s childhood friend, Tate Taylor. The two grew up together in Jackson, and each formed a close relationship with their black “co-mother,” as they called their caretakers, Carol Lee and Demetrie. “Kathryn and I had single mothers. We both like to think that our mothers were Celias,” he says, referring to the character Celia Foote, a poor woman who married rich and is excluded by her peers. “They were shunned from the social set of Jackson, and their mothers had to do the best they could to raise their children.”
At the time of the book’s debut, The Help received some criticism, which mainly centered on a white person writing in a black person’s voice, using heavy dialect. The New York Times reviewer vaguely concluded it was “problematic.” Some saw stereotypical characters. Others saw truths about their own lives reflected in the stories. For Taylor, tip-toeing about race wasn’t a question or concern. “Since I’m from this area, and it’s such a part of my social fabric and upbringing and belief system, you don’t recognize it is a precious subject matter, or taboo. This is just my whole life.” In the movie, seeing powerful actresses like Oscar nominee Viola Davis and the comedic expert Octavia Spencer play the roles of maids Aibileen and Minnie makes the characters feel wholly real and compelling.
While writing the screenplay for the film, Taylor cast friends and actors who had worked with him on his first feature film, Pretty Ugly People, such as Spencer and Allison Janney. “As a writer and director, one of the greatest gifts you can ever do for the project is to know who you’re writing for, especially when you have intimate knowledge of their talent and skill set.” Taylor, an actor himself, has an attuned sense of how performers “are going to say something, or their body language. That’s why I keep using them. I know their tricks.” For The Help, Taylor “just automatically plugged in Allison Janney as Charlotte [the mother of white protagonist Skeeter], so when I was writing her character, I was able to write for Allison. She’s great in the film, funny and tragic.”
To replicate the 1960s setting of the film, the production used Greenwood, a town two hours north of Jackson. “I wanted the character of Mississippi to be ever-present in the composition of scenes,” Taylor emphasizes, giving credit to his crew for designing and dressing the set. “That’s why we shot it in Greenwood, which has such a unique look. We wanted Mississippi to permeate every frame, and everyone did their job wonderfully.” In addition to the ’60s fabrics and designs of the interiors, exterior details like a backyard full of weeping willows, where Skeeter reflects on her childhood maid, give the movie a palpable Southern feel.
Skeeter is the organizing force in The Help, played by Emma Stone with the kind of bad hairdo that helps actresses win Oscars. A college graduate and aspiring writer, Skeeter comes home newly unsettled by the treatment of the black maids in her community. Most blatantly, one of her married friends, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), starts a “Home Sanitation Health Initiative” to require homes to have separate bathrooms for the black help. This development is both ridiculous and inspired by fact. Stockett herself never went into the bathroom used by her family’s maid. It’s the germs, you see. Incensed by Hilly, Skeeter decides she wants to tell a story about “the help,” first convincing her friend’s maid Aibileen to open up and later the sassy Minnie.
What should have raised eyebrows about the book The Help was not that a white woman was writing in black dialect, nor the film’s exploration of the loving yet fraught relationships between white employers and their black help. The unexamined issue is the plot Stockett hangs her stories on. She chose to tell the story of a white woman saving black people, and in the process becoming one of them. She told the “white savior” story. Hollywood loves these narratives, so it’s no wonder Stockett’s tale made its way to the silver screen.
The fact that The Help employs one of the most commanding, controversial mythologies out there is also a near-guarantee of its success at the box office. Characters like Skeeter help movies with black casts and issues like racism appeal to white audiences. She serves as a bridge between the white and black worlds before “going native” herself, shifting her allegiances entirely to the black maids. There’s also an aura of liberalism in these tales of racial harmony, which have made recent films like The Blind Side, Avatar and Gran Torino favorites among audiences and the Academy membership. But there’s also a dark side. Such tales carry at least a whisper of paternalism and insinuate inferiority.
Taylor himself doesn’t see any racial issues in the book that might lead someone to use that fuzzy-academic word “problematic.” “We were co-raised by two very special women in our lives that taught us everything about life,” Taylor says, speaking of himself and Stockett. “I just don’t see how anything’s taboo when you’re telling the story of your childhood.” Except, of course, that there was no “white savior” in his childhood, just love and affection between a caretaker and her charge. In the book, Skeeter shares the profits from their book with the maids who submitted the stories, but in real life Stockett has had to deal with a lawsuit from her brother’s maid, Ablene Cooper, who says that she appropriated her likeness without her permission. Harmony, it appears, is wishful thinking. The story of The Help gives us a rosy view of history in which good triumphs and the Ms. Hillys of the world are put in their place. It’s satisfying, moving, but more of a fantasy than we realize.
Readers of the book will be pleased to find that Taylor left most of the important bits in place. The Help is the rare movie that rises to the level of the book, in part because of tweaks Taylor made, like making Aibileen’s fate less “anticlimactic” compared to Skeeter’s. To make room for the rest of the cast of characters, the screenplay moves Skeeter slightly to the background.
Though Taylor recognizes that some feel the center of the story is Skeeter and Aibileen, he felt otherwise. “I really protected the relationship of Minnie and Celia in the screenplay.” Their friendship, between a white employer and a black maid, has “equity in the relationship. That’s what I gravitated towards and I thought was special,” Taylor explains. “The great friendship they have, they gave each other strength.”
Careful readers of the novel will spot changes here and there, but they mostly help preserve the tone of the book. Like Stockett’s novel, which effortlessly mixed comedy, drama and sadness, Taylor’s direction evokes laughter and tears in equal measure. Especially when it comes to some of the more unsavory fates of his characters, Taylor prefers letting the audience take charge and infer meaning, which also keeps the movie from tipping over into melodrama. Skeeter’s mother’s illness is mostly alluded to through her creative hairpieces, and one character’s struggle to conceive is left with a conclusion that may give some hope, and others a sense of finality. “I don’t need to beat the audience over the head,” Taylor says. “I use none other than efficient writing and hope people gather things.”
As The Help makes its way from book clubs to cinemas, Taylor hopes audiences will connect with the friendships that spring up between the characters. “What I tried to do was comment on unique friendships and love and how it knows no boundaries or color, yet it can be very strong. When you embrace that, great things can happen.” The Help may be a fable with an uncomfortable dark side, but there’s no doubt of its good intentions. And every so often, the fairy tale comes true, and you don’t have to go to the movies to see the results of these “great things” in action.