In 1972, when Andrew Young was elected the first African American congressman from Georgia since Reconstruction, he owed many of his white votes to those supporters’ black maids. “No one knew me in the white community,” he explained. “I’d go Downtown to the bus stops every morning at 5 a.m. to meet women . . . on their way to work for a white family and to take care of someone else’s children. I knew those women had the power to get me the white vote.”
Young had resisted his wife’s attempts to get him to read Atlanta author Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help, which some have viewed as patronizing and sentimental. Nonetheless, he found himself moved to tears by the film. Weeks before the official August 12 release, he hosted a private screening of a work print (minus Mary J. Blige’s song “The Living Proof”). Guests included his wife Carolyn, Billye Aaron, Glenda Hatchett, and members of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta.
Other attendees dabbed at their eyes too, using concession counter napkins, as the story of black maids raising white children in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, played out on-screen. Against the backdrop of Medgar Evers’s 1963 murder, the women—played by an all-star cast including Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Cicely Tyson—shared their stories with Skeeter (Emma Stone), a white aspiring writer of an anonymous tell-all book.
Afterward, as the lights came up inside the Movies ATL theater in southwest Atlanta, Young’s voice broke as he addressed his guests: “Some of you here tonight may be too young to recall this period. But almost everybody here has a grandmama, an auntie, or a relative who lived through this.” Young added, “It’s really not over. This film has done a wonderful job of opening a dialogue that lets you know that having one man in the White House is not an answer to the problems we’ve faced all our lives.” Privately, Young commented, “This film is probably the second shot at tackling the issue since Gone with the Wind.”
Spencer, who plays the spitfire maid Minnie, has echoed his sentiment: “Hopefully the conversation will transcend race and include socioeconomic differences, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation,” she said. “This film is really about how we treat each other as human beings. ”
After the preview, Carolyn Young recalled reading The Help two years ago. “I was a bucket of water. It brought back memories of my grandmother, who did that kind of work so I could go to college and not have to worry about loans. She afforded me a wonderful life.”
For Billye Aaron, The Help was a reminder of a not-so-distant era, when her famous husband Hank received death threats. “Watching it, I became very angry and very disgusted at points,” Aaron said. “But this time in history is a fact. The film accurately reflected the time, unfortunately. It would be great if this begins a conversation and helps to bring about a change. Because Mississippi is still Mississippi. Georgia is still Georgia.”
Photograph by Dale Robinette, ©Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC. all rights reserved