News / USA

Racially Charged Movie Being Filmed in Small Southern US Town

A scene from the move "The Help"
A scene from the move "The Help"

The book The Help examines the relationship between African American household servants and the white families they served in the early 1960s.  A movie version of the novel is being filmed in the small southern town of Greenwood, Mississippi, with Emma Stone, Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek in starring roles.  When a movie comes to town, it brings with it an economic boom and celebrity sightings you would expect from Hollywood movie making.  But the movie-making also brings up some old history during America's civil rights struggles. 

The bus is from an different era, the uniforms cut from an earlier pattern. The time is 1962.

This is how a movie is made. We see it - like the people who live here - from a distance.  This movie, The Help, is based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. It tells the story of three black maids, working for whites, in America's segregated south. The film is set in Greenwood, Mississippi.  

"It was the right place to be.  Had the right look and everything," said co-producer Sonya Lunsford.

Much of Greenwood looks as it did decades ago when laws written by whites controlled the lives and mobility of blacks.  Across the tracks, an all-black neighborhood adds authenticity.

These shacks still stand here in a section of town called Baptist Town. But back in the 60s, blacks had to endure strict Jim Crow laws.  The main character in the book writes about them: 'Negroes and whites are not allowed to share water fountains.  Movie houses.  Public restrooms.  Ballparks. Circus shows. We all know about these laws.  We live here, but we don't talk about them.'"

Laws no longer segregate.  But circumstances, and some streets, do.  Mainly whites live on Grand Boulevard, known as "America's Most Beautiful Street."  They attend fundraisers, like this one at the town's upscale hotel and spa.

Greenwood mayor Carolyn McAdams said "I would just be not telling the truth if I said, 'Oh, everything is in harmony here and everyone is in one accord,' because that's not the case.  But I do see that it is changing."

That change is part of America's modern, more integrated south. That change is changing Greenwood. Two-thirds of its residents are African American, but enough of them voted for McAdams last year that she defeated an African American incumbent.

While Greenwood moves forward, the movie moved in, with its recollections of segregation. The only blacks in The Help are the help. Actors Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis play maids.

Russell Baxter is an extra. In real life, he's a band director at a predominantly black, local school. "I can't blame anybody for things that had happened and people that are living now were not a part of those kinds of things.  I think attitudes have changed," he said.

Greenwood resident Henry Carpenter is a carpenter by trade.  In The Help he plays a handyman named Jameso.  He says his movie role has changed his image. "Some people have more respect for me than they ever had before.  The white people and all, tell me how great things are with me," said Carpenter.

Carpenter grew up on a plantation, working for a white family.  That's history, he says. "This is a new day.  This is 2010.  I'm not living back in the 60s now," said Carpenter.

Tate Taylor is the movie's director.  Emma Stone plays the main character, Skeeter; And, Bryce Dallas Howard, a harsh employer named Hilly.

The Mississippi Film Commission says The Help will pump $13 million into the local economy.  Work for 1,200 extras.  $125 a day for vintage car owners.  Restaurant business up 23 percent. The actors talk about returning to teach movie skills to the children.....of Baptist Town.

A major employer, Viking Range, helped to bring Hollywood to Greenwood. Company official Bill Crump. "The economic impact of the movie is much more than just dollars," said Range. "It has a residual effect, as far as tourism.  It brings people in during the filming of the movie who want to see what's going on.  It creates a buzz about the community."

Greenwood should really buzz when the movie is released next year. Except folks here will have to leave town to see it. Their only cinema closed five years ago.

Carolyn Presutti

Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters.   She has also won numerous Associated Press awards and a Clarion for her coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, and The 9/11 Bombing Anniversary.  In 2013, Carolyn aired exclusive stories on the Asiana plane crash and was named VOA’s chief reporter with Google Glass.

You can follow Carolyn on Twitter at CarolynVOA, on Google Plus and Facebook.

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