When Roslyn Brock, chairwoman of the NAACP, first heard about “The Help,” a new film based on a novel about the volatile relationships between Southern white women and their black maids at the dawn of the civil rights movement, she was skeptical.
“I didn’t have any great expectations for a movie based in the ‘60s about domestics,” Brock said. “I thought it would be a heavy, dark movie that would bring to mind segregation.”
After seeing the film, though, “I felt so proud,” she said. “My grandmother was a domestic in Florida, and when she passed, almost two generations of families whom she had taken care of sent condolences saying what an important part she was to their family. And it never really connected with me until I saw this movie.”
Last week, during the annual convention in Los Angeles of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Brook took to the stage after a screening of the film with an impassioned plea: “I ask each of you: Tell your friends, your family, your co-workers, your church. Organize screening parties. Go see this movie.”
As DreamWorks prepares to open “The Help,” starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone, on Wednesday, it faces the delicate task of selling the film to moviegoers, black and white, who might be reluctant to rekindle unpleasant memories of segregation. Brock’s shift from doubter to evangelist for the movie illustrates the critical role that word-of-mouth is likely to play in determining whether the film flops or scores as big as its source material, the best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett.
Marketing executives at Disney Studios, the company distributing the DreamWorks’ production, held advance screenings for more than 250 audiences across the country, including book clubs, churches, temples and libraries. They have also reached out to African American leaders such as Cynthia M.A. Butler-McIntyre, national president of the Delta Sigma Theta Inc. sorority; and Kuae Mattox, president of Mocha Moms Inc., a group of some 3,000 highly educated black women who have left the workforce to raise children.
Disney is opening the film on a Wednesday to get ahead of the crush of new releases, and to enable what they hope to be positive word-of-mouth to spread over the five days. Disney and the film’s producers declined to comment on the movie’s marketing. Industry observers predict the film will open with $25 million to $30 million for its first five days of release.
Although such tactics are hardly new, “The Help” seems to have elicited a particularly activist response among African American organizations, which want more mainstream entertainment featuring strong black women, and believe the best way to convey their message is with their pocketbooks. There have been few high-profile commercial films starring black women in recent years.
“The entertainment industry supports projects that are supported by the public, and the measure of support is gauged by the opening weekend box office,” said Butler-McIntyre. Her group designated “The Help” a Delta Red Carpet film, meaning the 200,000-strong organization supports the project as a positive, accurate and uplifting representation of African Americans.
Mattox, meanwhile, screened the film for some 200 members at the Mocha Moms biannual convention in Las Vegas last month. “It’s ironic that this group of moms would be watching this movie,” she said. “ ‘The Help’ is about the very people who paved the way for us, the women who raised other children so this generation of women are able to make the choice to raise their own. It was a very emotional experience for us to watch the movie.”
In addition to counting on groups such as Mocha Moms, the film’s backers are betting on strong turnout from readers of Stockett’s novel. The text was rejected by more than 60 agents before debuting in February 2009 as the first title for Putnum’s new imprint, Amy Einhorn Books. It hit the New York Times bestseller list a month later and stayed there for 103 weeks; USA Today on July 28 named “The Help” the bestselling book in the country after tallying all formats: e-book, hardcover and paperback.
Yet “The Help” isn’t universally beloved. Some critics including the New York Times’ Janet Maslin derided the book, which is told from three narrators’ perspectives (two black, one white), for allowing its white characters to speak in perfect English but giving its black characters their own dialect. Others carped that the main white character, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (played by Emma Stone in the film), was viewed by the black maids as a savior.
A writer who goes by the nom de plume Onyx M and describes herself as a mother and college graduate from a “multicultural family” started a blog in June 2010 that finds fault with all things involving “The Help,” from the film’s trailer to the book’s author. She’s particularly critical of the depiction of black men in the novel: “The three males paired with Stockett’s Mammyish triad of Aibileen, Constantine and Minny default into the worst stereotypes of minorities in fiction today: Baby makers. Absentee fathers. Wanting as men.”
In spite of — or perhaps in part because of — such controversies, exhibitors, especially those with theaters in the South, are expecting a strong response from audiences both black and white. Phoenix Big Cinemas, based in Knoxville, Tenn., has seen groups of 10 to 15 buying advance tickets, which executives attribute to book clubs.
“I think there is going to be more interest from the South,” says Phil Zacheretti, president and chief executive of Phoenix Big Cinemas. “There are still some areas that are dealing with these issues, not quite in the same tone of the ‘60s, but there are some areas where this film will stir some gossip and get people talking.”
Zacheretti is particularly encouraged by the interest already being shown for the movie in his company’s theater in Atlanta, which draws a predominantly black crowd.
“I can imagine there will be some cheering going on in some of those theaters that have predominantly African American audiences. [‘The Help’] is almost a rallying cry to give credit where credit hasn’t been given,” he said. “But we think it’s going to cover a wide audience. Both African Americans and Caucasians are going to see this movie: those that lived through it, those that knew about it and those that heard about it. We think it’s going to get a good response.”