Little Common Ground at Panel on 'The Help'

With black and white women at odds over the film, is anybody listening?

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When I was growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, when my oldest brother was in law school, my mother occasionally performed day work -- that is, she would hire herself out for the day to clean a house from top to bottom. She was a stay-at-home mom with a high school degree and some college under her belt.

My dad was a supervisor in a high school boiler room who occasionally worked catering jobs on weekends and some evenings, for -- if you're counting -- a total of two or three jobs at a time. With five kids, money was tight. I remember seeing Mom -- who would later return to college and have a long and honored career as a teacher -- put the $5 she earned doing dirty work in an envelope and send it to my brother. He could have taken a job as a server in the dining hall of his Pennsylvania university. But neither Mom nor Dad wanted him to wait on the kids he would be sitting next to in class -- his future competitors and colleagues in a world where black and white and your place still mattered a lot.

The work didn't define my parents. They knew their worth, and so did their children and their friends, many of whom were doing the same.

Times have changed. But I realize the distance we still have to travel when I see the reaction to The Help. Of course, I'm talking -- as so many are -- about the movie version of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling book about whites in the civil rights-era South and the maids who served them, raised their children, fried their chicken and, apparently, wrote best-sellers for them. Four weeks after release, it's still at the top of the box office list, with close to $124 million in total earnings and going strong.

Everybody's a critic, which is how it should be when it comes to works of art. What some like, others don't -- for a variety of reasons. So why should so many seem offended when a work they love is greeted with ambivalence and disdain by someone else? After all, it's only a movie, right? Well, no. It's become an occasion for black and white women to come together. But are they really listening to each other?

Rorschach Test on Race and Relationships

Few could have predicted the phenomenon that The Help would become, with Dixie tours dripping in magnolia and memories, and reprinted recipes extolling the virtues of Crisco. And I never imagined that where you stood on the book would turn into a Rorschach test on race and relationships.

To her credit, Stockett has been very clear that The Help is a work of fiction, written, she says, in a sort of tribute to Demetrie, the black woman who raised her and died when she was a teenager. Stockett didn't know about Demetrie's life, thoughts and dreams because, she has admitted with a bit of shame and regret, she never asked her.

At an encounter with Stockett at a book-and-author luncheon before the film was made, I good-naturedly traded opinions with her about whether there can be a true, caring relationship between two people when the power differential is so great. I also wondered in a column if that luncheon would have been quite as packed with weeping white ladies with white hair and memories of their own if, perhaps, they had read a book from the point of view of the actual "help."

I accept, though, that the story was Stockett's filter, how she would have liked it to be. The Help showed the heroines -- black and white -- in their best light. Don't we all want to see ourselves that way?