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?
Hollywood Plays It Safe
That's how I judged the big-screen version of The Help, which turned out about how I expected. I didn't love it or hate it. It was middling Hollywood entertainment of the makes-you-laugh, makes-you-cry variety, but a little too simplistically Disney-fied for my taste.
Hollywood was not about to option a book that told the story through the eyes of "the help." It would rather play it commercially safe with yet another story that sees the civil rights movement through the emotions of a white heroine, redeemed by her breakthrough realization that black people have stories to tell. While that heroine is the one who gets the cushy New York job as payment for her epiphany and her risks, at least the maids get the best lines, albeit in exaggerated dialect that made it impossible for me to digest the book.
On the scale of movies of this sort, it was less obnoxious than The Blind Side and miles ahead of Mississippi Burning, which portrayed J. Edgar Hoover's FBI men as heroes, when in reality they were too busy planting microphones near Martin Luther King Jr. to protect civil rights demonstrators.
I never begrudged Stockett her perspective or her book's success, though it ultimately wasn't for me. I viewed the film at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Philadelphia this summer and sat in on an after-screening panel with Stockett; the director, her childhood buddy Tate Taylor; and lead actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.
That day, the film had plenty of fans but a few detractors as well. The one thing everyone could agree on was that Davis is a mesmerizing actress in any vehicle, stage or screen. Stockett took a tough question or two (she could handle them) and lots of praise.
Viewers then and since have lined up pro and con, with reactions varied and not always by race. But at a recent come-to-church meeting that was actually in a church, as the black women and white women took turns at the microphone, there was a distinct difference.
The event was organized by the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., for women in particular to share their stories. And while many of the white women reveled in Stockett's tale as is, many black women took it as a starting point to discuss a much harsher reality, one that included pay that was not much more than the nothing that their enslaved forebears received, sexual harassment of even adolescents, and an emphasis not only on the love but also on the "no love lost" between employer and employee.
Beside an older white woman on the panel, who as a girl was left for hours by working parents and was singing the praises of the black woman who raised her, sat a still-young black banking executive who described her years of domestic and restaurant work for a South Carolina family. She started at 12 years old, and it was, she said, "tough for me," as she grew up fast, dodging sexual advances and making just $10 for a long day's work.
After another older white woman spoke of how "we loved our Lucille," who left her own children to take care of someone else's, the cold, sober testimony of a maid-turned-college professor stopped the room. The woman, originally from the Caribbean, complained about the "intolerable" work for which she was "grossly underpaid." When asked about her former employer, she recalled his unwanted sexual attention and replied in a soft lilt, "I hope he's dead and rotting in hell."
When a white moderator spoke of the "shame" that former domestics felt revealing their work history, black women sitting nearby — and that includes me — bristled and shook our heads in disagreement. We always loved our family and friends for doing what they had to do, and never thought the work fostered a feeling of inferiority. I always knew that my mom was worth a lot more than her $5-a-day employer — and she knew it, too.
While I understand why some would want The Help to be the beginning and end of it — the hurt, the missed connections, the warped and brutal history of relationships between black and white — it never pretended to be that at all. If the book and film start a dialogue, that's fine, but only if it's honest. That's the only way that caring relationships that cross racial lines can be genuine.
In the complicated case of The Help, it's not that Stockett and her fans don't have a right to her version, one that might move them. But the conversation becomes richer only when the testimony of the flesh-and-blood witnesses who did the work is added to the fiction.
The Help is entertainment. It's not the last word, or even the first. Until we actually listen to each other, black women and white women can sit together in a church but still remain at a distance.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, NPR, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog. Her "Keeping It Positive" segment airs on TV's Fox News Rising Charlotte, and she was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.