By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Pres
JACKSON – An African American housekeeper wants a judge to reinstate a lawsuit that claims Kathryn Stockett, author of the bestselling novel-turned-movie “The Help,” used her likeness without permission.
“The Help” is based on relationships between white families in Mississippi and the black women who worked for them in the 1960s. It was made into a movie that opened last week, debuting at No. 2 nationwide and bringing in $26 million.
Ablene Cooper, who works for Stockett’s brother, claims a character in the book, Aibileen, was based on her likeness. Her lawsuit seeks $75,000 in damages.
Hinds County Circuit Judge Tommie Green ruled Tuesday that a one-year statute of limitations elapsed between the time Stockett gave Cooper a copy of the book in January 2009 and the time of the lawsuit’s filing in February of this year.
Cooper’s lawyer, Edward Sanders, filed a motion for reconsideration on Wednesday, saying the clock should not have started ticking on the statute of limitations until Cooper read the book in the summer of 2010. Sanders argued that Cooper didn’t read it sooner because Stockett said in a handwritten note that, despite the similarity in names, the character wasn’t based on Cooper.
Sanders submitted to the court a copy of the handwritten letter along with his motion for reconsideration.
In the letter, Stockett says she only met Cooper a few times, but was thankful she worked for the writer’s brother because his kids love her so much. The letter was sent to Cooper with a copy of “The Help,” court records said.
“One of the main characters, and my favorite character, is an African American child carer named Aibileen,” the letter said. “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.”
The letter goes on to say the book is “purely fiction” and inspired by Stockett’s relationship with “Demetrie, who looked after us and we loved dearly.” The letter is referring to Demetrie McLorn, the Stockett family’s housekeeper, who died when the author was a teenager.
An affidavit that accompanies the letter said Cooper knows Stockett, has kept her child before, and had no reason not to trust her.
Stockett was not in court this week in Jackson — the same city where the book is set — when the lawsuit was dismissed.
Cooper was in court and was obviously upset by the ruling. She wiped away tears leaving the courtroom and launched into a tirade outside the courthouse.
“She’s a liar. She did it. She knows she did it,” Cooper screamed.
The judge did not make any determination on whether Cooper was the basis for the character, saying the statute of limitations trumped those matters.
Stockett’s attorney, Fred Banks, had no comment on Friday.
Besides arguing the statute of limitations had passed, Stockett’s defense team has said in court papers that Cooper and the character are not that similar.
“‘The Help’ does not use Mrs. Ablene Cooper’s name. It uses the name Aibileen Clark. It does not paint a picture of Mrs. Ablene Cooper, middle-aged in 2011. It paints the picture of Aibileen Clark, middle-aged in 1962,” the lawyers said in court filings.
The lawsuit quotes passages from the book, including one in which Aibileen’s character describes a cockroach: “He black. Blacker than me.”
The lawsuit says Cooper found it upsetting and highly offensive to be portrayed as someone “who uses this kind of language and compares her skin color to a cockroach.”