Gwen Harmon, National Civil Rights Museum Rep, Discusses Accuracy Of 'The Help'
Oscar "for your consideration" campaigns are nothing new, but Disney's take on marketing its Oscar-nominated film, "The Help," might make you pause. With offers to cover town hall-style meetings about the film's power to create social change, language describing the film as a "social awakening," and comparisons to classic films, it's hard not to wonder about the authenticity of those claims.
Which is why Moviefone called Gwen Harmon, Director of Governmental and Community Relations at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Turns out, Gwen didn't just offer background on the historical touch points explored in "The Help," but she also grew up in Jackson, Mississippi -- the town where the film is set.
Gwen described her very personal journey with the material, as well as the context in which the movie fits into our present social subconscious - all apropos thoughts before seeing the four-time-nominated film make a showing at this Sunday's ceremony.
You've seen "The Help" - what did you think of it?
I've seen it and I've read the book. I am from Jackson, Mississippi so I read the book first. I thought it was an excellent piece of work. The book was good, engaging. The movie -- of course the cast -- was just phenomenal, well-represented. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer just did a tremendous job of bringing those characters to life. So that was to me very authentic, how they did that and how they captured the whole moment of that mood back in the 1960s.
In order to ramp up Oscar consideration, Disney has been sending out a bunch of emails inviting folks to town hall-style discussions and calling the film "a social awakening" that incites "social change." In the text they compare "The Help" to classics like "To Kill a Mockingbird," "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "Norma Rae." Do you think it stacks up with those greats?
I'm not sure if "The Help" will go down as a classic such as "To Kill a Mockingbird." And I say that because "To Kill a Mockingbird" reached literary status first, and then the film followed in the shadow of that. I don't know if the book by Kathryn Stockett will reach that kind of height. But what I think that film does...in this time and space, is for our particular generation -- especially for younger children who don't quite understand what that history was like -- it's a teaching moment. And I think that perhaps what they see today -- nannies and people who serve as butlers and maids and "household managers" as they put it now -- that they understand that these people are still people. They are doing a job of service and every job has dignity. And people should be treated with that kind of respect and dignity -- I'm hoping that's the teaching moment that comes off from "The Help."
Another point, too, is that these other films that Disney is touting "The Help" to be like -- they came out much closer to the time periods they depicted. And "The Help" did not. I know you consider the movie a teachable moment, but do you think this type of film depicting that time period is important for us to see now, or do you feel that there are more current issues that should be tackled?
I think this world is in so much trouble that there's enough room for every right to be highlighted. Every issue should have a moment in the spotlight. But there's no way to hold one aside and say, "Maybe it's too late" or, "How do we connect with today's audience?" because I think the popularity of the film connected tremendously with today's audiences. And people were probably surprised about that. The theater -- the one that I went to anyway -- was a generational representation of women and men who were teenagers to grandmothers. And that's when you have a real connection with an audience -- that's when you really bring about social change. You have to connect throughout the generations. And so even though it happened back in the sixties,I think right now, [in] America, there's a sting there when it comes to class. The "haves" versus the "have nots," those who are there to serve us...I think until we start bridging that gap today -- and hopefully films like "The Help" will help us do that -- as a society we're going to remain in a lot of trouble.
As far as the historical accuracy goes - "The Help" includes the Medgar Evers assassination, an actual historical event, but I'm curious to know of other things in the film that are accurate, and maybe others that aren't so much. For example: having separate bathrooms for the help - is that something that really happened?
Well, there was a social line you did not cross if you were a black person working for a white family. Certainly you did not eat in the dining room with the white family -- you ate in the kitchen. In some households, you didn't use the same flatwear or table settings. There were a lot of rules -- it depended on who the lady of the house was and how liberal she was. But certainly there were some strict limitations, some strict racial limitations.
What about the character Hilly Holbrook's "Home Help Sanitation Initiative" - is that based on anything factual?
That was a creative liberty. But all the Jim Crow laws...which were, you know, blacks could not sit at the front of the bus -- and that created the Montgomery Movement, and that was led by maids. If you understand the history of that movement in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama -- Dr. King's first movement -- 70 percent of the bus patrons in Montgomery were black women who were maids. And with 70 percent of your customers not riding the buses for 13 months, it brought that system to its knees. So that represents to me just how powerful a network those women really had when they stood together.
You mentioned earlier that you're from Jackson, Mississippi -- where "The Help" takes place. Did you or anyone you know have similar experiences to those depicted in the film?
There's a scene where they show the black movie patrons going up to the balcony to be seated in the movie theater. That brought back a lot of memories. We sat in the balcony - we weren't allowed to sit down in the larger theater seats. The balcony only would seat about 50 people and it was dark and tight, and then the downstairs was just like a regular movie theater. Not being able to go into a restaurant and order food through the front door -- you had to go through the back door. So there were some painful memories, there were some accurate memories. That part of it hit home for a lot of the people who went to see it, from Mississippi. They remember those days very clearly.
Did you just grow up knowing that was the way things operated? Or did your parents have to explain it to you? I'm struggling to understand how any parent would explain that system to a child.
You grow up knowing as a child that there's certain things you can and cannot do because of your color. Your parents and your grandparents explain it, of course every child questions why. And the most common answer you'd get is that's just the way it is. And I think for my generation, there was always a quiet moment of waiting -- because we knew that wasn't a good enough answer. So you kept waiting for the day, the year, the moment when "That's the way it is" wasn't good enough. And they came in a series of different moments -- it came in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it came in the lunch counter sit-ins, it came with the Freedom Riders. And that's when you saw that generation of 20-something-year-olds becoming very active in the movement. Standing up and against that "It's just the way it is" saying, "No, it's not the way it is -- it's not the way it's going to be."
Have you ever advised any Hollywood productions?
We've actually had a couple studios come to our site to film some scenes. And before they'd do it they'd let us read the script and would ask us about certain aspects of what they were doing.
Do you have any words of encouragement for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, since they're both up for Oscars this coming Sunday?
We're very proud of the way that they portrayed the women in the film. It was accurate, it was done with dignity and compassion - we saw our mothers, our grandmothers, our aunts, our neighbors, our church members in their portrayals. And we're just very proud of them and their work, and we're very proud of the film.