With A Little Help From Their Friends
Director Tate Taylor and actress Octavia Spencer talk about The Help
Published: August 10, 2011
This summer’s funny and moving history lesson—about the often uneasy relationships between black housekeepers and the white women they worked for in 1960s Jackson, Miss.—comes via The Help, a film version of the best-selling novel by first-time author Kathryn Stockett that opens Aug. 10 (see the review on page 18). City Paper was running late to interview Tate Taylor, the sharply dressed Southern gentleman who wrote the screenplay and directs, and Octavia Spencer, the wonderfully warm actress who plays Minny in the film, last month at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., but the two were laughing when this writer walked in—they’ve been friends for a long time.
In fact, “who you know” is one of the reasons the relatively unknown Taylor wound up helming this film, which is filled with major talents (Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson). Taylor and Stockett have been friends since they were 5 years old. Spencer and Taylor met 18 years ago as production assistants in Mississippi on the film A Time to Kill and both moved out to Los Angeles to work in the movie business in 1996.
“Allison Janney has been a friend of ours for about as long,” Taylor says. “We all just run together as a support group, and then Kathryn got to know Octavia loosely through my friendship with her, and that was when Kathryn began writing [The Help], and she took some of Octavia’s characteristics that she thought would be great for the character of Minny in the novel.” In 2006, Stockett agreed to give Taylor the film rights to the book, which he’d fallen in love with even though it had been turned down by 60 publishers and wouldn’t hit print until the following year.
“It’s very, very incestuous,” Spencer laughs.
“It truly is a family,” Taylor says. “It’s really rare that we all stuck together and got to stick together. Loyalty just prevailed, and Dreamworks was such an amazing studio, because on paper it just doesn’t make sense. Me.”
“Me,” Spencer adds.
“Dreamworks was like, We are not going to mess with this magic,” Taylor says. “Hats off to them.”
Once the novel was published, it struck a nerve in some who found it disingenuous, and/or exploitative that a white woman could and would write from the perspective of black women.
“I’ll tell you one thing we did notice that’s quite funny about that controversy,” Taylor says, “is usually 85 percent of those people have not even picked up the book. They asssummmme”—he draws out the word—“which really speaks to the situation of race relations in our country, that people assume that this white girl from Mississippi doesn’t have the right to tell this story ’cause she’s white, when she lived it and influenced the story, like the chicken and the egg.”
“Luckily I didn’t know what the book was about when Kathryn told me she had written a book,” Spencer says. “I found out by cracking open the manuscript and reading it, and I have to say I had the same adverse reaction to the subject matter—because, at very first blush, of the dialect—but I have said, and I will continue to say, one doesn’t have to be black or white to tell this story. One just has to be an incredibly thorough, good storyteller and tell the truth, and that’s what I think Kathryn does.”
There were other elements of Stockett’s book—and ultimately the film—that rub some folks the wrong way. “The controversy basically is the fact—and it is a valid point—that African-American women have been relegated to playing servant roles, but this is not that story. This is a story that hasn’t been told, and certainly hasn’t been told this way,” Spencer says.
“And had someone read the book and had fault with a white woman writing a character, I just have to ask, when do we get to pick our artists and what they can and can’t do?” Taylor adds. “That to me is much more dangerous than someone maybe thinking, You didn’t have the right to do that.”
Spencer sums up the objection thus: “[When] black writers write these type of stories, they’re never purchased, and when a white girl writes it, it’s purchased. That’s the argument, but that has nothing to do with Kathryn and should not be a reflection of her talents. That’s a whole ’nother argument.”
Taylor adds, “And it wasn’t purchased for a long—”
“A looong—” Spencer interrupts.
“—time,” Taylor finishes.
At a Baltimore advance screening, the audience consisted of a black church group and a few reporters taking notes, and given the subject matter, white guilt was a factor for this viewer.
“Here’s the thing,” Spencer begins. “The only way we are going to move on as a country, and it’s not my place to judge the past—the past is what it is, history is what it is—the only way that we can impact it is to be a symbol of where we are today, and that means having this type of dialogue, making race relations not something we shouldn’t talk about, so that these conversations aren’t so touchy or people are walking on eggshells.”
At the screening, it’s mentioned, everyone was crying by the end of the film.
“I was too, and I don’t have white guilt,” Spencer laughs.
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