Interview: 'The Help' Star Octavia Spencer and Director Tate Taylor

“Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out of bed in the morning.” --“The Help”

The quote above comes from the first page of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel “The Help,” which tells the story of a group of black maids who worked in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's. These maids, who are often mistreated by their female employers, eventually decide to talk about their work experiences to a young author who is compiling a book about them. Stockett's novel has now been adapted into a movie and I recently had the opportunity to participate in a group interview with director Tate Taylor and actress Octavia Spencer about their new film, "The Help."

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Taylor, who is great friends with Stockett, talked about one of the main reasons that he enjoyed her manuscript and wanted to make it into a film. After noting that his single mother brought in someone to help raise him, Taylor added that he loved the idea of exploring the personal lives of maids and caretakers who help take care of other people’s children. Oftentimes, he said, “a lot of African-American characters are just one-dimensional. They just help to serve information." However, in this film, the lives of these African-American maids are explored in depth and the characters are fully-realized individuals.

The story of the book itself is quite impressive. After being rejected dozens of times, it was finally published and became a national bestseller. Taylor was an early believer in the story and told me that he had “the rights to [Stockett's] book before she even had an agent or a publisher so we thought we were going off to make an independent film based on my friend’s unpublishable manuscript.”

Now, that "unpublishable manuscript" has become a great success and spawned a movie starring acclaimed actresses like Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek. When I asked Spencer why the story has resonated so strongly with audiences nationwide, she said that there were a couple of reasons behind it. "The story’s told from a perspective that hasn’t been seen,” she said before adding that "the characters are so relatable" that people can find at least one character to relate to. Thirdly, she said that the story succeeded because the “themes are really really profound." She added that the story is "about empowerment. It’s about finding your voice. It’s about being a hero of your own life. All of those things, I think, are transcendent of the time period...”

Interestingly enough, the book and the film have faced some controversies. One controversy arose because the book was written by a white woman who often writes from the perspective of black maids and another controversy arose because a white woman in the story serves as the voice for black maids, who aren’t able to tell their stories themselves. Like some of its critics, Spencer admitted that she originally had some trepidations about the story. Early on, she said that she “was ready to have a problem with this project" but after reading it, she "was pleasantly surprised and really in awe of Kathryn because she took a great risk in telling this story." Spencer added that Stockett was "always going to catch flak because she's a white girl" writing a story from an African-American's perspective.

In our interview, Spencer and Taylor also talked about the early reactions they’ve received after screening the film. Taylor noted that many audiences have been pleased because the film isn't simply a history of the leaders of the civil rights era. As Taylor said, the story is "about everyday people" living in a certain time period and dealing with the realities of that period.

As Spencer said so well, "The Help" is a story about a lot of things including "empowerment" and people "becoming heroes in their own lives." As someone who has read the novel and seen the movie, I can attest that this is a story worth reading and worth seeing at a theater near you.

"The Help" opens in theatres today.


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