PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — If you want to see Black history told from a rarely heard point of view — the Black maid — then The Help will provide that opportunity.
Even as the Civil Rights Movement was reaching a seismic and profound change in this country’s South during the early to mid-1960s, the South still was clearly divided by race. The White men went to work while the White women stayed home and held such societal events as noontime bridge games. Meanwhile, Blacks mainly were relegated to serving them, whether by the men in menial labor jobs, or by the women as maids and children caregivers.
Kathryn Stockett painted this picture in her best-selling novel, The Help, and the film based on the same name does the same.
The Help, which premieres this week, stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as two maids in Jackson, Mississippi. The film chronicles an unlikely triangular relationship between three women: two Blacks and a young White woman, who grew up in the town and recently graduated from college, seeking a writing career. These three females created and produced a secret writing project that would break all existing societal and Jim Crow laws, putting each of them at risk.
Davis plays Aibileen Clark, a housekeeper since she was 14 years old, who raised 17 children for her employers as well as her only child, a son who died tragically in an accident.
The two-time Tony Award winner (Fences) and Academy Award nominee (Doubt and Eat Pray Love), Davis said she originally was hesitant to take the lead role — the film’s heart and soul — because of historical cinematic treatment of Black women. “I always have been aware of the stigma attached” to on-screen servant roles, she admitted. “But I could not help but to see the fact that this is the richest character that I have ever [played].”
“I knew a lot about Black history, but there’s one thing to know your history and — another to] actually appreciate it,” added Spencer, who plays Minny Jackson, a 33-year-old housekeeper, an outspoken and often defiant woman with the reputation of being the best cook in Mississippi. However, an act of defiance got her fired and later landed her a job with another White woman, the town’s social outcast.
The MSR was among a packed house of Black journalists at a special screening of The Help held August 6 at the 2011 National Association of Black Journalists annual convention in Philadelphia. Actresses Davis and Spencer, along with author Stockett and Tate Taylor, who wrote and directed the film, all participated in a Q & A session afterwards.
“The Help is a tribute to Demitri, the Black woman who helped shaped me,” said Stockett, who herself grew up in Jackson, Miss. in the 1970s and was raised by a Black woman while her single mother worked.
“I don’t try to act like I know what these women feel like,” said Taylor, also a Jackson native and Stockett’s longtime childhood friend. Carol Lee was his Black caregiver. “She was a friend. There is a special bond because you can be real with them,” he explained.
The Help will strike a myriad of emotions, including laughter, tears and anger, inside any moviegoer. “There is a lot of emotion and feelings” in the film, surmised Taylor.
Based on the journalists’ reactions afterwards, the film should be Oscar-qualified, including award-winning nods for Davis and Spencer, who gave knockout performances. It is also sure to be both a box-office hit as well, believes MSNBC’s Tamron Hall, who served as the question-and-answer period moderator.
When Hall asked, “Is this an Oscar winner?” the approving audience, including this MSR reporter, answered unanimously with cheers at the Pennsylvania Convention Center’s lecture hall. The vocal thumbs-up totally caught Stackett off guard, who said that the audience reactions she heard during the screening also impressed her.
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