Despite heated debates surrounding the film and its portrayal of black history, The Help is an official box office success — bringing in $25.5 million dollars during opening weekend.
The movie is based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. The story delves into the relationships African-American maids had with their white employers in Jackson, Mississippi during the racially charged 1960s.
Tate Taylor, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, produced and directed the film. He considers the project one of his most emotional and personal works ever. Taylor bought the film rights to The Help from his best friend Kathryn Stockett a year prior to the book hitting shelves.
The movie is already getting Oscar buzz, and has sparked a national discussion on race relations and civil rights.
In an interview with theGrio’s Chris Witherspoon, Tate Taylor shared his take on recent controversial debates surrounding the film, and why he stands firmly on the message The Help delivers to viewers.
theGrio: What made you decide to direct ‘The Help?’
Taylor: I am from Jackson, Mississippi, and this story really pulled at my heartstrings and my nostalgic urges. The moment for me, was when Aibileen and Mae Mobely’s characters came to life in the manuscript. I was immediately thrust back, to years ago and I thought of Carol Lee, the woman who helped my mother raise me.
Kathryn Stockett had a very similar situation in her adulthood, where she began missing her nanny. It made her start writing short stories that ultimately became The Help.
I knew I wanted to direct the movie, as soon as I read the manuscript. I got the rights to the manuscript a year before the book was even in print. Kathryn had been turned down by 60 agents, and she said “Tate, I have this book, nobody’s interested, you can read it if you want.” I did read it, and I was immediately blown away.
So you had a black nanny growing up in Jackson, Mississippi?
Yes I did. Her name is Carol Lee. She is still in my life, she came out to the premiere of the movie and walked the red carpet and everything. I put her in the film too. You know the scene where Skeeter goes to the house and all of the maids have come together to help tell their stories? She is the first woman that tells Skeeter that she wants to help write the book.
So is Carol Lee proud of ‘The Help?’ Does she feel your depiction of maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s is authentic?
She was so proud of the movie. So thrilled. Absolutely. She has been one of my strongest supporters.
What was your most memorable experience while making this movie?
Every day was a memorable experience. What I remember the most was the sense of joy, that so many friends were together. Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, and Kathryn Stockett and so many others. We were able to tell this personal story on our homeland and tell it in a way that we felt was accurate, without a lot of intervention. Everyday we felt blessed.
What do you say to people that say this film did not accurately represent black maids of south during the 1960’s?
I want them to tell me, what their version of accurately is. People are being too critical of this film.
It’s so perplexing to me. Kathryn set out to write a book not about victims. She wrote a book about four women that were victims of circumstances of their surroundings. The book is about courage and love and integrity, and talking to whom you consider to be your enemy and finding common ground. Kathryn has said, she would never be equipped or interested in writing a historical, fictional account of the civil rights movement. It’s just a story. My job as a director and person who is adapting a novel that is a monumental success is not to go take what she did and make is something that it’s not. That would be more offensive and wrong. This is art, this is an expression in storytelling, and this is the particular story that we are telling.
I think anyone who sees this movie will feel that Aibileen and Minny are the most courageous, brilliant, smart, and spiritual loving humans on the planet, and oh yeah they have on a uniform. I didn’t film these ladies scrubbing toilets.
I didn’t want to have a yard man beaten with a crowbar because he went to use a white bathroom. We have seen that, done before and we know it. That takes away time and moments for me to show the layers of these women. Conversely, that’s why I had one of the maid, Yule Mae taken off of the bus and beaten with a club. That’s not in the book, but I am trying to show that yeah, horrible things happened in the South, but through a character that means something to the storyline. That’s filmmaking.
The scene where Viola Davis sitting on a toilet in a garage in 108 degrees, and then a white woman comes out and tells her to hurry up was visually brutal. To me that’s worst than seeing a lynching. It just is.Were you at all apprehensive or nervous as your prepared to direct the film? How did you prepare?
No I wasn’t nervous. Octavia Spencer is my best friend. We have heated debates about society and the world we live in all of the time. She lived with me the whole time that I was adapting this. If my friend who has got my back more than anybody, agrees with this film, then that’s all the confidence I need.
I spoke to my maid Carol Lee. I interviewed a 100-year-old maid in Oxford, Mississippi. The woman that tells the story in the film about the white man buying the land for her, is based on the account from the 100-year-old maid. I had my entire crew watch Eyes On the Prize. We went to the homes of Greenwood, Mississippi and Viola Davis’ and we heard intimate stories.
There is no way that a piece of cinema for 2 hours and 17 minutes is going to have fully flushed out and real life characters.
I’m very proud of the potential educational tool that this could maybe serve to kids and people who don’t know how we treated people in a horrific period of time.
Do you anticipate The Help getting awards when the Golden Globe and Academy Awards season approaches?
What thrills me the most is to see my friend Octavia get such acclaim. To see her all of these years have such small parts in these films and shows that were mediocre, to see her get this acclaim, is the best.
I really want to see Viola get recognition too. Viola is worn out with all of this racial stuff. She has gotten more heat from taking this role than anyone. If anyone is more keenly aware of her culture or her people it’s her. She made a serious and conscious decision to do this, and she is proud of it.
When people see this film, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
I want people to look at where they are in life, whether they are white, black, gay, straight, Asian, tall, short, they probably at one point in life felt oppressed, repressed or discriminated against. Figure out who is holding you back, and take a chance to talk to them and see what happens. Cross the line and have a discussion. That’s what The Help is all about.
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