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Anonymous Book Dishes on Life as a Black Maid in 'The Help'

  • Alan Silverman

A hit novel about black and white women in the American south 50 years ago has been made into a film that is winning widespread critical acclaim. Alan Silverman has this look at The Help.

"I was raised by a colored woman. We love them and they love us, but they can't even use the toilets in our houses."

It's 1962, and university graduate Skeeter Phelan has come home to Jackson, Mississippi, a corner of the south that the civil rights movement has yet to reach. African-American women like Aibileen Clark work in the homes of white families as maids, cooks and nannies. Skeeter, played by Emma Stone, asks Aibileen to describe what life is like for these black women.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in "The Help" Photo: Dale Robinette – © DreamWorks II

SKEETER: "I want to interview you about what it's like to work as a maid. I'd like to do a book of interviews about working for white families.

AIBILEEN: "Do you know what Miss Leefolt would do to me if she know that I was telling stories about her?"

SKEETER: "Well, I was thinking that we wouldn't have to tell her."

Emma Stone in 'The Help' Photo: Dale Robinette – © DreamWorks II

Emma Stone says Skeeter didn't imagine that the invitation would be problematical.

"Skeeter is very idealistic and is crazy to think that this would be exciting for Aibileen to be a part of," Stone says.

But Skeeter eventually wins the trust of Aibileen and her co-workers. Their book, published anonymously as The Help, creates a sensation. Viola Davis co-stars as Aibileen and admits to having thought twice about playing the servant.

"It's very difficult because I thought, do I want to play a character that could be viewed as so subservient? But I see her as much more than that. This is all we were back then," notes Davis. "Every once in a while you had someone who broke the norm, but you were maids. You were in subservient roles. And yet she was able to break out of all of that to pursue a goal and a dream and to speak out."

HILLY: "I have drafted the home health sanitation initiative."

SKEETER: "The what?"

HILLY: "A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the help."

Bryce Dallas Howard, left, and Emma Stone in "The Help" Photo: Dale Robinette – © DreamWorks II

Hilly, a socialite, sees herself not as a racist, but as an upstanding citizen in a place and time when speaking out against discrimination is a crime. She's played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

"I had to believe in the things that I was saying and believe that what I was doing was right, which is what the circumstances were back then with these kinds of women and individuals. They actually thought that they were doing good, which is so scary," she says.

The Help is adapted from the best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. She based the book on her own experience growing up in Jackson.

"Look, I'm the first one to say I’m a white woman. I know that I'll never truly understand what it must have felt like to be a black woman working in the south," Stockett admits. "But it seems like no one had even tried to show that perspective."

MINNY: "All right, I'm going to do it. But I need to make sure she understands this ain't no game we're playing here. Do I have to come up with the questions too?"

SKEETER: "Uh, let's begin with, uh, where you were born."

MINNY: "Belzoni, Mississippi, on my great-auntie's sofa."

The civil rights movement is the backdrop for the story, but Octavia Spencer, who plays the outspoken maid Minny, says it is really about relationships and empowerment.

"It's not about race. It's about doing what's right and finding your voice," Spencer says.

The Help
was directed by Tate Taylor, author Kathryn Stockett's childhood friend. It was filmed near where they grew up in Mississippi.