The Help a Box Office Hit; NPR’s Michele Norris’ ‘Race Card’

[ 0 ] August 12, 2011 |

The movie “The Help” is creating award buzz already, and explores issues of race and class; NPR’s Michele Norris on her book and “The Race Card”

The much-anticipated film “The Help” opened at the box office Wednesday with a solid $5.5 million and is getting a lot of buzz for its controversial topics and the fantastic actresses helping to make it a hit.

“The Help,” which is based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel by the same name, and which stars actresses Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard, is about African American maids working for white families in the 1960s Mississippi – a time when the two races, and classes, were kept apart. A young white woman writer (Stone) interviews the maids in town to learn about their everyday lives and the mistreatment, abuse and heartbreak they endure just before the Civil Rights movement. Davis, who portrays the main maid character, Abileen, is making headlines for her performance; there’s even talk about a possible Oscar nod, among other awards.

The critically-acclaimed “The Help” has received some criticism, but Davis says women of all races should at least see the film out of curiosity.

“I believe what me, Octavia, Cicely Tyson, Aunjanue Ellis and Roslyn Ruff are able to do is humanize these maids,” she told Essence. “They are no longer just women whose backs you only see in the kitchen taking care of kids. These are real people. And it’s palpable. They start off very ordinary – but human, and by the end of the movie they turn into heroes. I think that in of itself will be enough to satisfy the need we have to be seen and heard as black women.”

Michele Norris, host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” has also put her experiences with her family and race down on paper for the world to read. Norris’ book, The Grace of Silence, was originally intended to talk about America’s hidden conversation about race, but Norris changed course after learning about her parents’ own experiences with race that they kept from their children. Her maternal grandmother, for example, worked for years as an itinerant Aunt Jemima, traveling to small towns conducting pancake mix demonstrations, dressed in a hoop skirt and apron with a bandanna on her head.

“My parents kept these stories to themselves because they wanted their children to soar. They didn’t want to weigh down our pockets with tales of woe. Instead, they armed us with ambition instead of anxiety,” Norris says of her book.

While Norris encourages each of us to ask how well we know the parents who raised us, she also is encouraging us to think hard about race. During her book tours, she distributes “race cards,” asking people to think about their own experiences, hopes and dreams, and write a six-word sentence to help get the conversation started.

“I knew I would be talking about race because I wrote a memoir about my family’s complicated racial legacy,” Norris tells genConnect. It’s a “somewhat difficult subject.”

Norris says she first printed out 200 cards, but so many people mailed and emailed them back – from places as far away as London and Abu Dhabi and through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook –  she now distributes thousands.

“Some of them are poingnant, some of them are funny, some of then will make you cringe, but they are people who express their thoughts about race in short bursts, short sentences,” Norris says. One man wrote: “Born colored, children African American. Progress?”

At her web site,, people can view the race card wall and read what people have wrote about their experiences with race.

“It’s an archive of peoples’ thoughts and observations about race at an interesting moment in history,” Norris says.

Watch our interview with Michele Norris below:

Watch “The Help” trailer below:

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