"I Just Made Shit Up!" Kathryn Stockett and The Story Behind ‘The Help’

The day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Kathryn Stockett found herself sitting in her downtown New York City apartment, reflective, lonely and terribly homesick.

“I was thinking about my family and thinking about this woman named Demetrie,” said Stockett. “She was the African-American woman that worked for our family for 32 years and for the first time in my life, I started to ask myself ‘what was she thinking all of those years?’ I had totally taken it for granted. I was so naive as a child. She knew everything about us and I didn’t know anything about her. So I started writing in what to me was her voice.”

Ten years and over 60 rejection letters later, Demetrie’s voice has become the bona fide literary phenomenon that is The Help.

Stockett’s debut novel about the complex relationship between black maids and their white female employers during the dawn of the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi was released in February, 2009 and has sold 5 millions copies and spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List. The book has also been adapted into a major motion picture starring Oscar nominee, Viola Davis (out August 10).

That’s a dream come true for any author, let alone a first time one. And while I’m sure Stockett is enjoying the fruits of her labor, this unfathomable success has left her in a compromising position with African-American readers.

During a post-screening Q&A moderated by MSNBC’s Tamron Hall during the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Philadelphia last weekend, Stockett – along with the director Tate Taylor and two of the film’s stars, Octiavia Spencer and Viola Davis – answers the question on everyone’s mind: What makes her, a white woman, qualified to tell this story?


From Left to Right: Director, Tate Taylor; Author, Kathryn Stockett; Actresses  Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis & Moderator Tamron Hall

“I still don’t think I’m qualified,” admitted Stockett in her laid-back southern drawl when Hall asked her the question. “There was an awareness that these weren’t really my stories to tell but on the other hand, I thought about how vital it is just as a passionate, intelligent human being to wonder what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes. And it doesn’t mean that we’re looking down on them or feeling sorry for them. We have to open up our mind and try to wonder what someone else’s life is like.”

In the novel, Skeeter Phelan, returns home a graduate of Ole Miss, excited to start a career as a writer. She comes up with an idea to write a book from the point of view of the black maids who serve the white families in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Her best friend’s maid, Aibileen, and Aibileen’s best friend Minny, are the first to agree to be interviewed. What starts out as a tightknit, top secret project eventually unspools into a jaw-dropping tell-all that holds up a mirror to the town of Jackson, Mississippi.

The story is told in the first person from the perspective of Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. And Stockett has come under fire for her use of a controversial, dated dialect when writing in the point of view of the maids.

“I receive criticism all the time for writing in that type of vernacular,” said Stockett in front of a packed 600-seat lecture hall. “And I understand that. But that is how I remember Demetrie’s voice. It was literally like playing back a tape recorder in my head.”
A woman in the audience took Stockett to task on the inclusion of sensitive historical moments in the book and her decision to weave them into the fabric of her fictitious story. (Stockett peppers the novel with real life news stories of the time: the murder of Medgar Evers, JFK’s assassination, for example.) But Spencer jumped in, reminding the woman (and everyone else in the audience) that The Help is not a non-fiction book and that it’s Stockett’s job as a fiction author to entertain, not give history lessons with her novel. “It’s your job as parents to teach your children about our history,” Spencer said. And before switching gears, Stockett quickly interjected, “I just made this shit up!” The entire crowd erupted in applause.
Spencer also had some choice words for the people who are rolling their eyes, and swiveling their necks at the thought of black actresses, yet again, playing maids on the big screen. She was a bit apprehensive about taking the role herself for that very reason. But quickly realized the story was bigger than her ego.

“We all want to start out owning the record company without really knowing how to run a record company,” said Spencer. “We all want to start at the top of the food chain and don’t want to work to get there. Let me tell you, I honestly understood that when I got to meet Mrs. Myrlie Evers. I was like ‘wow they sacrificed so much for us. These people are going to have to get over it!’ Because it’s on the shoulders and the backs of the Minnys and the Aibileens that [Viola] and I, and all of you are able to do what we do today. So get over the fact that these women are maids.”

And what open dialogue on the portrayal of African-Americans in film would be complete without mentioning Tyler Perry? When asked about her opinion on Perry and his often-criticized films, Davis, who starred in Perry’s Medea Goes to Jail back in 2009, came to his defense. Sort of.

“When you are the only, you then rise above the status of what you truly are, which is just an actor to being a mouthpiece,” explained Davis. “Tyler Perry would not be under the gun if there were other black filmmakers. He’s under the gun because he is the only one out there. Therefore, he is given the responsibility of speaking for an entire race. Ben Stiller is not the mouthpiece for Caucasian culture and that’s because they have David Fincher. They have Steven Spielberg. They have Roman Polanski. But because we just have Tyler Perry, he’s it. We have to understand that we cannot be the keepers of image and message. We can only do what we do. That’s it.”

I read The Help. Finished it almost two weeks ago. It’s a good book. A great book, actually.

My opinion about the subject matter or what inspired the material or who wrote the story aside, it’s hard to deny that it is a beautifully written, entertaining novel. Stockett weaves together a delicate layered tale about unlikely friendships and the power of the written word with such care and ease, you can almost sense that she’s well aware of the possible fallout that lies ahead.

Would The Help be as successful if a black woman wrote the book? No. Is that a shame? Absolutely. Is that Stockett’s fault? Not at all.

I get what the beef is: Here’s a white woman who has made a fortune off telling a black woman’s story. I see the quandary there. Conversely, she had a terrific idea for a novel, and was brave enough to sit down and write it. Shit, kudos to her!  I think it’s counter intuitive to tell her she shouldn’t have written it because she’s white. The book (and film) has struck a chord with millions of readers and opened up a realm of dialogue. How can that be a bad thing?

I find that the most opinionated folks haven’t even read the book! I overheard a writer for [website name redacted] sitting behind me at the screening last week, chatting about how she and the media outlet she writes for are putting together a huge piece on The Help…but she hasn’t had a chance to read the book.

Um. Ma’am, really? What kind of well-rounded contribution can you make to that “huge piece” you speak of if you haven’t even read the book? Just asking….

I thought I would hate the book. Thought I would be reading 500 pages of yes’ms and stereotypes. But the entire time I read it, I couldn’t stop thinking about my Granny, who worked as a maid for a white family in the suburbs of New Jersey years before I was born.  I felt like the book was paying homage to her and giving her stories and experiences a voice. It made me yearn for her, wishing she were here to tell me about her days as a domestic servant.

The book is much better than the movie. Period.

Tate Taylor captures the essence of the story, but his vision is a tad bit too heavy-handed at times and some of the characters come off as caricatures. The film lacks the nuanced story building process Stockett crafts so eloquently and the tension and high stakes of what Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter have done also seems lost in the film. Things happen too easily.

But what Taylor (who also penned the screenplay) does do well is trim the fat around Minny’s domestic abuse storyline. Minny’s husband, Leroy, is the only black male character represented in the book. And let’s just say, he ain’t reppin’ for the brothers quite too well. I was glad to see that Taylor opted not to show in the film what was portrayed so vividly in the novel.

The performances are spot-on! Davis is a force as Aibileen, a middle-aged maid still grieving the death of her only child. And you won’t be able to take your eyes off of Spencer who nearly upends the movie with her gruff portrayal of Minny. She will become a household name after this film.

I’m sure people will walk into the theatre wanting to hate the movie. But frankly, that will be hard to do. Just beneath the social injustice finger waving is a good, old-fashioned chick-flick that will tickle you pink and tug on your heart strings all in one big swoop.

Have you read The Help?

Going to check out the film?

Talk to me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

  • Excellent blog. I'm glad you got to attend such a discussion.

    I know the book is always better than the movie, but I have yet to read the book. I was randomly given tickets to a prescreening of the movie a few months ago and greatly enjoyed it, which means, to me, that those who have not read the book will be highly entertained.

    I was one of those people who walked in to

  • Urbane Urbanite

    @suga
    Thanks!

    And yes, I would love to know what you think of the book.

  • teejay_nj

    Thank you for writing this post. Prior to reading your post, I was somewhat sick of hearing about the movie because the media has been promoting it hard as hell. Your post has made me interested in reading the book AND seeing the movie. I'll probably catch it on DVD unless I get the book ASAP and breeze right through. LOL.

    BTW, who cares if she's white? Black people are more

  • Urbane Urbanite

    @teejay_nj

    Exactly! I didn't know you had to be a certain color or ethnicity to tell a good story. Just sayin'…

  • I have read the book and i thought it was excellent. As you said, it reminded me of the sacrifices and experiences of my grandmother, and it was very beautifully written.
    I actually have no problem with the fact that this book was written by a white woman, BECAUSE it was a good story. Plain and simple. And let's be real for a moment, even if a Black author had written this story, folks

  • Wandered here via @Reads4Pleasure's tweet 🙂

    I'm currently reading the book and intend to watch the movie this weekend or the next.

    I don't even have a problem with the story/plot per se. It is a true part of the history of black women however ugly it may be. What irks me is the huge media push behind the whole thing (e.g. products on HSN…hello??!!). It's

  • Urbane Urbanite

    @md_KG
    *Waves*

    Hey! Thanks for stopping by.

    I just went over to HSN to see what you were talking about. YIKES! I guess they'll be selling maid costumes for Halloween next?

    Yeah, Tate Taylor hit the jackpot! LOL. And his decision to grab the rights to the her manuscript before it even had a publisher was

  • Urbane Urbanite

    @Brandelyn
    Yes, I agree with your sentiments on the whole if a black author had written this book, there would still be folks up in arms about dialect, setting, context…something!

  • I just finished the book and I thought it was great. I agree with Brandelyn that it was a GREAT story and doesn't matter who wrote it.

    I'm going to see the movie with my family next week and don't have high hopes because movies never live up to the books.