Nominated in Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories at tonight's Academy Award ceremonies, "The Help" brings Hollywood back to its favorite moment in the South, says University of Memphis communication professor Allison Graham, author of "Framing the South."
That moment is 1963, a crucial era of shock and triumph in the civil rights movement, and a time that is easy for film artists to place in history with images from television news, Graham says.
If the Old South is a movie set characterized by "Gone With the Wind," the Modern South, to the rest of the nation is a black and white TV image.
Graham, who helped write, direct and produce the 1993 documentary "At the River I Stand," about the two months leading to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, spoke last week to the Memphis Rotary Club about theories she developed in her book subtitled "Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle," published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Television in movies made about the mid-20th century South is "as common as badges and horses in Westerns," Graham says.
"The TV era was also the civil rights era; they came of age together."
The movie version of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel "The Help" relies on televisions strewn throughout the sets in Jackson, Miss., homes to telegraph its time. "You see 'Guiding Light,' Medgar Evers boycotting in Jackson, some of (President) Kennedy's funeral," she said.
The figure who embodies the fear and terror of the time is the Southern sheriff, she says.
"In the summer of 1955, Harold Strider, the obese, tobacco-chewing sheriff of (Tallahatchie) County, Mississippi, lumbered onto national television screens during the Emmett Till murder trial," Graham writes in "Framing the South." Strider was followed by "a succession of lookalikes": Bull Connor of Birmingham, Jim Clark of Selma, Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Ray Price of Neshoba County, Miss. All outfitted to protect and defend the citizenry, all seen "vigorously resisting the law of the land."
"Civil rights leaders realized that well-placed cameras were an ally," Graham says. "If you could see that clash, you don't need words for it, violence doesn't need words."
And fortunately for the ultimate success of the movement, "It took a long time for that to sink in to some of the sheriffs."
Images of Clark physically assaulting people in Selma, or just staring at the camera, were not just unsympathetic, they were electrifying. Clark staring menacingly at the camera "It's as if you the viewer were being beaten up by Jim Clark," Graham said.
When Clark and his posse charged into marchers on the bridge in Selma in 1965, beating them with clubs, ABC News interrupted the showing of "Judgement at Nuremburg" to air 15 minutes of raw footage from the attack.
"It virtually ensured that LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson) could pass the Voting Rights Act," Graham says.
The perfect opposition to the Strider-Clark image of a Southern sheriff is found in "The Andy Griffith Show," which premiered in 1960. In her book, Graham describes Andy Griffith's character, Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor, as "almost a practicing pacifist" who requires his deputy Barney to keep the one bullet he's allowed buttoned in his shirt pocket.
Graham finds a touch of irony in the casting of Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, the racist villainess of "The Help." Howard's father, Ron Howard, got his start in the movie business as Opie Taylor, Andy's freckled, red-headed son.