Change was the theme of the night as USC School of Cinematic Arts presented The Power of Film to Create Social Change Panel Discussion featuring The Help. The distinguished panel included writer/director Tate Taylor, and actress Octavia Spencer who is nominated for an Oscar for her role in this film. The panel also featured Michael Taylor – Chair of Film and Television Production at USC; Reverend James Lawson – Legendary Civil Rights activist, Rabbi Allen I. Freehling – Former Exec. Director Human Relations Commission, City of Los Angeles, Ai-jen Poo – Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance; and moderator Cari Beauchamp – award-winning author and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Scholar.
The panelists embodied the inspiration that the characters had onscreen and focused on discussing themes from the film within a larger context of societal change. The Help was conceived in a small NY loft where Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett, author the novel, worked. Both were raised by single mothers and their maids, and have dear connections with those maids who helped raise them and shape the foundation of their lives.
To cope with Demetrie’s passing Stockett began writing short stories about her and thus “the Help began when Kathryn just wanted to hear Demetrie talk to her…I think she had every right in the world to do what she did because it came from a place of love,” Taylor described. After that, the parallel creation of the book and film ensued as Stockett and Taylor worked simultaneously on the manuscript and screenplay. “ The script was done before the book hit the shelf”, Taylor told us.
The film tells the story of maids in the South in the midst of the civil rights movement, whose story had never been told before. Labor rights activist Ai-jen Poo commented that more than “two and a half million women” saw their stories told in this film because “for the first time domestic work has entered the public imagination. For all the domestic workers overlooked for years, this film was certainly a victory. And that feeling has continued for domestic workers throughout this awards season. One maid said ‘When Octavia won the Golden Globe, I felt like I won the Golden Globe!’”
Spencer was sincerely touched by this, and stated she was proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of such an empowering film. “I see the world very very differently because of playing this character” and she hoped the film allowed many others to gain a new perspective as well. The Golden Globe winner hoped that the Golden Rule was one of the key themes people took away from the film. In response to one USC student’s question, she also encouraged young media makers to bring their distinct perspectives into their work and to “be the change you want to see” on screen and in the world.
Some of the power and authenticity of the film comes Taylor’s insistence to shoot the film on location in Mississippi. Rabbi Freehling noted that although the film is a period piece it “speaks of the present, and its up to us to determine whether in fact the film speaks to the future”. The panel expressed their hopes for social change in the future brought in part by films like this. Poo noted, “Change has to happen on many levels, on the level of policy, on the level of behavior, but also very importantly on the level of hearts and minds.” The film and this panel certainly touched people’s hearts and minds, encouraged social change and empowered everyone, and certainly this writer, to do all they could to help achieve it.
(NOTE: This article was co-authored by USC journalism student Kim Leoffler)