This August marked the premiere of the Disney DreamWorks feature film “The Help,” based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, which portrays the relationship between the races in the South in the early 1960s through the eyes of black maids employed by white housewives, many of whom are members of the Junior League of Jackson, MS. In the midst of the film’s jampacked promotional tour, our editor was one of the hordes of media who got the chance to chat (very briefly) with the Jackson triumvirate that brought the film to life—author Kathryn Stockett (KS); director and screenwriter Tate Taylor (TT); and producer Brunson Green (BG)—to learn the backstory of how the League made its way into the plot and what the film says about race relations past and present.
How did The Junior League make its way into the story?
K.S.: The Junior League was the highest echelon of women in Jackson in 1963. It was a huge part of society and I just couldn’t leave it out. It was the group you joined after you got married. I considered calling it something else, but then I figured that everyone would see it as a veiled attempt to cover it up. The League was a great escape for women, a chance to get out of the house at a time when women struggled with their identity, which was what their husband did for a living.
Do you think of the novel and the film as a commentary on the institution of The Junior League?
K.S.: The Junior League is a backdrop, just as the drugstore, the grocery store, a home, or the League house are. It’s just another set. It was a place that women gathered, one of the occasions women planned for on their calendars just as they did their bridge club, their hair appointment and church.
Were any of the women in your family members of The League?
K.S.: Both my mother and my grandmother were members, though my grandmother was more into the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Is there any truth to the rumor that your mom was asked to leave the League?
K.S.: I have heard that rumor too, and no, not really. What my mother has told me is that after she was divorced she sort of backed away. She was one of the first women in Jackson society to be divorced and divorce was sort of frowned upon in that conservative society and so she felt it set her apart.
I read in that essay you wrote for More magazine that it took you 61 tries to find an agent to represent you. How did you remain committed?
K.S.: It’s true, I received 60 rejections and I saved every letter. I’m so stubborn that if you tell me I can’t have something, I want it even harder. Knowing those letters were sitting there, that my story was surrounded by all this doubt, I realized I had nothing to lose.
What was the inspiration for the character of Aibileen?
K.S.: The character of Aibileen was inspired by Demetrie, my grandma’s housekeeper. After 9/11 I was really feeling homesick up in New York and I started thinking about Demetrie. I wanted to write in her voice as best I could.
And what about Skeeter?
K.S.: The character of Skeeter was based on my mother. She wrote the League’s newsletter.
With what character in the story do you most closely identify and why?
K.S.: I kind of identify with Celia Foote and her fashion choices. I know what it feels like not to fit in and not to be able to put your finger on why, that you know you’re different but you can’t figure out why. I thought Jessica Chastain did an amazing job.
What is your interaction with The Junior League today?
K.S.: I am not a member but I can tell you that in Jackson, the League opened the Children’s Museum, which is incredible. I love Jackson, but it’s not a mecca for culture or metropolitanism, so we’re really excited about it and excited about what the League did.
How did it turn out that you wrote the screenplay and directed the film?
T.T.: Kathryn and I have been friends since the age of five and we were both raised by single moms; we were latchkey kids, and so it was very important to have some co-mothers [maids] who were very influential and inspiring. They taught us how to be adults. When Kathryn first told me she was writing a novel, she was writing it for herself. They were short stories that were very therapeutic after 9/11. But she wouldn’t let me read it; she was embarrassed about being turned down by 60 agents. At last she gave it to me and I read it in a day. I could not believe what my friend had done. She is so talented. I told her she couldn’t give up that I wanted to make it into a film. I got the rights and wrote the screenplay before the book was even published. We thought, “Wow, we can make an indie film based on an unpublished manuscript.” Then one day, [after she’d found an agent and a publisher] Kathryn, Brunson, and I were driving from Jackson to Atlanta. Somewhere around Tuscaloosa, Kathryn got a call from her publisher telling her the book had debuted in the top 25.
How did the people of Jackson react to the fact that you were making this film?
T.T.: Everyone embraced it. The Junior League was great and the Chancellor of Ole Miss was great. And it made me proud to be a Mississippian. Ole Miss has been voted one of the most racially diverse and sensitive universities in the country.
Would you say that the portrait the film paints of the women in the League is any different from that you would have painted of women who were not in the League?
T.T.: It was emblematic of the time. But then you look at the character of Celia and to a degree she also was emblematic of the time.
Did you learn anything as a result of making the film?
T.T.: I learned a good lesson while making the film when I interviewed
a 100-year-old woman who’d been a housekeeper since the
1920s— she’d raised 40 kids. She and I were talking about her experience
chopping cotton back in 1917 and she casually mentioned that
she’d worked side by side with whites. And it showed that these poor
people were friends, they took care of each other. These uneducated
people were not racists. That really stuck with me, that when the
point is survival, the humanity comes out.
What do you think the film says about race relations at that time and have they changed at all, in Mississippi and beyond?
B.G.: Really what it says about race in that time is that Hilly wasn’t an evil person, just and ignorant person, and that ignorance doesn’t exist anymore in a lot of the United States. Through exposure you learn more about people. The color bar doesn’t exist anymore for this new generation. In the old days everything was always defined by color.
What do you hope viewers learn from the film?
B.G.: I think one thing that has come out of it is that you realize you can’t judge a book by its cover. Everybody’s life is different and you have to take into perspective where people come from and the struggles they’ve been through. You can’t judge people. It makes me think about the expression about walking in other peoples’ shoes. Right now I’m eating in a restaurant and I’m thinking about how the waitress is doing a great job. She’s got a hard job and I can’t discount that she’s working hard to bring me a nice meal.