The Help is enjoying the success most dramas this year haven’t quite reached: 100-million dollar baby status. Actually, The Help grossed $160 million, unheard of for a movie that only stars women and isn’t necessarily about sex and a city, or a wedding, or this guy or that guy. And yet, for all of its success, its director, who is arguably responsible for bringing the thing to the screen at all, not to mention making it the crowdpleaser that it is. In the hands of anyone else, The Help’s writer/director would be lauded right along with the film but because Taylor is unknown that has so far eluded him.
There are only a small handful of films ever nominated for Best Picture or winning that received a solid A from the Yahoo users movie section. You might think that’s a ridiculous barometer, but what I like about that rating system as opposed to, say, IMDb’s, is that at Yahoo Movies they have no agenda. They aren’t fanning a movie to get on top of their list and they aren’t really a specific crowd of cinephiles, fanboys or what have you. They are just people going to see movies. While no film has ever received lower than a B- and been nominated for Best Picture, very few have earned the A grade. Those movies, as far as I could tell, are: Toy Story 3, Up, Avatar, The Blind Side, The King’s Speech and The Help.
That says a lot. The New York Times’ Melena Ryzick (aka The Carpetbagger) did a write-up for Taylor I somehow missed. It goes into his background, his history growing up in Mississippi, how he came to the rights for the book (his childhood friend is the book’s author). The article also talks about the amount of research Viola Davis took on. She also addresses the ridiculous double standard placed on her to carry both the burden of our shameful past and the burden of presenting it now in a politically correct way. It isn’t enough that the movie exists at all, that it made $160 million, but because it isn’t quite PC enough it doesn’t go quite far enough for white writers, and some black writers, who object to what I think are tensions that still exist today. Say what you will about The Help but for me it made me think about the lives we’re living right now. How far have we really come? Will this movie inspire other young women to take pen to paper to tell their story, black or white? I hope so. Anyway, the article is well worth the read and I’m sorry I missed it earlier this month. Here’s Davis, eloquent as always:
“There was so many expectations placed on us,” she said. “Expectations from the African-American community. Expectations from the people who read the book and really wanted to keep the integrity of the characters. Expectations from the people who lived this life. And then our expectations.”
She at least expected the film to cause debate. “I knew it was coming,” she said after the lunch, “because I understand where it’s coming from, I really do. People are tired of those images — of the maid, uneducated, a thick dialect.”
“But what I stood by and what I still stand by,” she continued, “is that those women actually existed. They’re my mother, and they’re my grandmothers, and they’re people who paid the price so we could enjoy the freedoms we enjoy today.”
Beyond all that, she added, she stood behind her work.
“You’ve got to get beyond the image and the message and look at the execution,” she said. Of Aibileen, she said: “I found her to be a brave character. I was attracted to her because she was quiet and simple, and I felt like she was someone that I knew. I didn’t feel like she was a device or function. I felt like I could put my hand on her. And I felt like when people saw her life on screen, if I was successful, they would be moved by it.”
A bit more from the story:
Ms. Stockett’s novel was turned down by 60 literary agents before she found the one who sold her book, three weeks later; it quickly became a hit. By then she had already sold the movie rights to her childhood friend, Mr. Taylor, an actor turned fledgling director. He wrote the script in the apartment they shared as roommates in the East Village. Later he worked on the script in Los Angeles, where Octavia Spencer, who plays Minny, was his roommate; the film is a web of his relationships. Nonetheless studios were skittish about entrusting a neophyte with such sensitive material. (The director Chris Columbus, a producer of “The Help,” was eventually dispatched to be a full-time on-set baby sitter.)
Mr. Taylor was determined to shoot the movie in his beloved home state. “Mississippi is an assault of life,” he said, speaking by phone this week. “The heat, the bugs, the fried food, the history, the religion, the roadkill everywhere. It absolutely permeates you. I wanted Mississippi to be a character, but I didn’t want to create it. It only made sense to bring the spend of a studio movie to the place where it happened.”
In a meeting with executives from DreamWorks Studios, which ultimately backed the film while Disney distributed, he offered a look book that Mr. Ricker had put together, showing images from their road trip, to make his case. By the summer of 2010 the crew (at least half of its members native Southerners) and the cast — including Viola Davis as Aibileen, Emma Stone as Skeeter, Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly and a memorable Jessica Chastain as Celia, a ditzy but warmhearted wife — were on location in sweaty Greenwood. They were greeted rapturously by the locals, nearly 1,000 of whom wound up as extras.
Ms. Davis, who is considered a shoo-in for a best actress Oscar nomination, arrived a month early. She had already started her research, watching civil rights documentaries like “Eyes on the Prize” and reading books about that era.
“I read anything I could possibly get my hands on to just recreate what it was like to live in that time period,” she said, “because I did not want to bring my 21st-century sensibility to Aibileen and turn her into someone I wanted her to be, instead of something that she was.”
Ms. Spencer too worried about putting a contemporary spin on her character. “I was judging the fact that Minny was an abused wife and didn’t leave,” she said. “I had to understand battered-wife syndrome, which was a phrase that wasn’t even around, a diagnosis that wasn’t even around” at the time. In Ms. Spencer’s portrayal Minny deals with the degradation she suffers at home by maintaining some semblance of dignity at work. “I always tried to make sure to be as erect as possible when dealing with white people,” she said, “because Minny wanted them to know: ‘I know you think that I’m inferior to you. I’m not.’ ”