Whether you believe the block-buster film, ‘The Help‘ is a “timeless and universal story about the ability to create change with a whisper (the movie’s tagline),” or it’s Hollywood’s “sanitized” version of what Jim Crow living and work relations were really like for many African Americans in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement, one thing is for sure — this movie has sparked some very interesting dialogues about race this year! I’ve seen this film twice since its release. The first time, I saw it with a small group of friends from my church. Afterwards, I immediately thought it was a movie for white audiences more so than for black audiences. After feeling this way, I thought I would seek a second opinion about the film. So I saw it a second time with someone special who knows what being ‘the help’ was truly like. That special someone was — my mom!
My mom, who is in her eighties now, worked in the homes of affluent white families as young as age 14. This type of employment back then was called “Days Work.” She worked in white homes until all three of her children were in school. I was the last one to start school and when that happened, she quit working in white homes to attend and complete nursing school.
As soon as the movie ended, I was anxious to know what mom thought. But before I could ask her questions, we encountered a young white woman coming out of the same theater crying. She took one look at my mom and started wailing so loud that people standing around and passing by stopped to see what was going on. To say we were caught off guard and a bit surprised by her behavior is an understatement. All we could do was look at each other and exit the building as quickly as possible without further incident . . . WHEW!
Once we were in the car headed home, we chuckled and shook our heads over what just happened to us, then my conversation with my mom about the film went something like this . . .
Liv: So, what did you think of the movie?
Mom: That was different
Liv: LOL! Different how?
Mom: I don’t recall work in the homes of white folks being quite the way it was presented in that movie.
Liv: So what was different about it?
Mom: This movie didn’t really show black maids functioning in white homes as they really were in those days. From what I saw, those two maids Aibileen and Minnie lived way better than many of us lived at that time!
Liv: So what scenes in this movie would you say just didn’t happen the way it was presented in this film?
Mom: I cannot speak for all black maids in the South, but there were some scenes in that movie that just wouldn’t have happened the way it was presented. When Minnie, Mrs. Walters, and Hilly traveled to the home of Elizabeth Leefolt for a women’s luncheon, Minnie goes into the kitchen where Aibileen is working and reaches for a deviled egg to eat from one of the trays prepared for the luncheon. Aibileen stops her and points to the refrigerator where a separate tray for “the help” to eat from was waiting. A second tray prepared for “the help” just didn’t happen like that. You cooked, you served, then you ate what was left — “IF” there was anything left to eat.
You wouldn’t see no white man being attentive and helpful to a black maid the way Mr. Foote was towards Minnie near the end of the movie. And you sure wasn’t going to find no white woman cooking a grand meal for her black maid to sit, eat, and enjoy the way Cecelia Foote did for Minnie in this film!
Liv: So were there specific rules that you had to follow working in white homes?
Mom: Oh yes! Some of those rules were:
1. Don’t use any bathrooms in the home; the “colored” toilet was outdoors
2. All sitting must be done in the kitchen either at the table, or on the back porch
3. Coloreds entered and exited the home from the back door which usually lead into the kitchen
4. All meals were eaten in the kitchen at the kitchen table, or on the back porch where a fight with the dog over your plate was a norm
5. There was only one stool in the kitchen to sit on, or to be shared with the other maid who worked that day in the home
Liv: What did you think about the “feces” in the chocolate pie that Minnie cooked up and served to Ms. Hilly?
Mom: Whoever came up with that scene was just plain silly and took black maids during that time completely out of character. No black person in their right mind would handle, let alone cook, feces in any shape, form, or fashion. But more importantly, doing something that vile against a white person would lead to them being lynched. Trust me, someone like Hilly would not have kept quiet about her black maid feeding her feces to save face or uphold her reputation in the community.
Liv: Were there some relationships in this film that were true to those times?
Mom: The loving relationship that Aibileen had with Ms. Leefolt’s baby girl was accurate. It was not uncommon for black maids to take care of the family’s children. But it was our care of the children that made our Jim Crow existence so senseless to me. What I mean by that is I could never understand how they could leave their most precious possession – their child — in the care of the very race of people they loathed? Then to have that child you cared for grow up and call you by your first name and/or treat you with the same indifference because you’re black just didn’t make sense. But again, common sense is not as common as we like to think.
Liv: That is an interesting point. Actually, this movie is based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel, THE HELP. I understand her book stayed on the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list for more than a year after it was published in 2009. She grew up in Mississippi with a black maid named, Demetrie, that she loved dearly. According to the Q & A section of her website, she wrote this book because she, “wanted to go back to that place with Demetrie. [She] wanted to hear her voice again.”
Mom: So the character Aibileen was her idea of Demetrie’s voice?
Liv: Yes, but in the interview she is quick to say that she doesn’t pretend to know how black maids felt working in white homes in the South at that time.
Mom: Well I’m glad to hear that she said that because there is no way a white woman could ever begin to grasp what it meant to be a black maid working in their homes during that time. At best, all she can do is tell us what “she” observed and what “she” thinks is Demetrie’s voice.
Liv: You know, what you just said is probably why I feel this is a movie for white audiences more so than for black audiences.
Mom: I can certainly understand why you feel that way and I agree with you too!
Liv: Some folks are calling THE HELP a great movie. Do you think it is a great movie?
Mom: I liked it well enough. It’s not what I call a great movie, but it’s not a bad movie either. I’ve seen it and this one time is enough for me!