Is The Help a true story? The controversy surrounding its real-life inspiration

The Help

The 2011 period drama film The Help is notable for its ensemble cast of actors – including Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name, The Help tells the story of two black maids during the 1963 Civil Rights Movement in Jackson, Mississippi.

Over the years, the film was reevaluated for the way it handled its themes of racism and did not emerge unscathed from criticism. Davis and Howard expressed regret for featuring in it, citing the story’s blatant ‘white savior trope’ as problematic. But since The Help is set in a true time in history, there has been some confusion surrounding the events portrayed in the film.

The Help is fiction but author Kathryn Stockett was accused of appropriating the character of Aibileen Clark on a real person

The Help is a historical fiction written by Kathryn Stockett in her debut novel. She envisioned the story after the September 11 attacks and took five years to write the book. She struggled to find a publisher for three years until Penguin Books picked it up in 2009.

Although the book, and by extension the film, is not based on a true story, there are certain real-life inspirations behind it. For instance, Stockett set the story in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, and modeled the community in the book after a real one.

However, Stockett was accused of basing the character of Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis in the film) on her brother’s black maid Ablene Cooper without her permission. Apart from the similarity in names, Cooper claimed that the physical appearance and life story of the ‘fictional’ Clark resembled her own.

Aibileen Clark in the book sports a gold tooth and loses her son in an accident. Likewise, the real-life Ablene Cooper also has a gold tooth and her son passed away from leukemia months before she began working for the Stocketts.

“When I started to read the book, I said, ‘This is the closest thing to my life I ever seen. It’s gotta be me’. Kathryn spelt my name wrong, but they pronounce it exactly the same way in the book and the film… Kathryn copied parts of my life and used them without even asking me,” said Cooper.

Stockett claims that her relationship with her family’s late black housekeeper Demetrie McLorn inspired her to write The Help

On the other hand, Stockett denied the allegations and claimed that she only met Cooper a few times ‘for ten seconds’ and that she did not know her. In 2011, Cooper launched a lawsuit against Stockett for the unauthorized appropriation of her name and image, seeking $75,000 in damages.

But the case was dismissed after the one-year statute of limitations expiration since a year had passed between Cooper receiving a copy of the book from Stockett and her filing the lawsuit. It was revealed that Stockett had given an unpublished copy of The Help, along with a handwritten letter, to Cooper in January 2009.

In the letter, Stockett acknowledged her few meetings with Cooper and thanked her for taking care of her brother’s children. She also made it clear that Aibileen Clark was not based on her, writing:

“One of the main characters, and my favorite character, is an African American child carer named Aibileen. Although the spelling is different from yours, and the character was born in 1911, I felt I needed to reach out and tell you that the character isn’t based on you in any way.”

Stockett went on to write that her novel was ‘purely fiction’ and was rather inspired by her relationship with her family’s late black housekeeper Demetrie McLorn.

‘Demetrie, who looked after us and we loved dearly,’ said the letter.

Stockett grew up with an absentee mother and was mostly raised by McLorn, who passed away when she was a teenager. She further affirmed in the autobiographical afterword of the book that McLorn was the inspiration for The Help.

Nevertheless, Ablene Cooper stood her stance and called Stockett a ‘liar’ and ‘racist’ for the way she treated the whole affair. Whether she appealed the decision or not remains unknown to the public.