Perfect Husband and I went to see The Help recently. I picked up the book at the airport in May, and gobbled it right up. It’s a good read – it’s easy, and it doesn’t FEEL long, but it actually took me a couple of days to get through, and that’s despite an eight hour flight (just so you don’t think I am an absymally slow reader, please keep in mind it was an eight hour flight with a baby).
So we went to see the movie.
It’s good. It carries the plot of the book fairly well, and I think it falls into the purple category in Don’t Mind The Mess’s pie chart.
It caught the plot and most of the characters well, but it lacked… edge. The anger. The character of Minnie was well played by Octavia Spencer (who apparently was the real-life inspiration for the character) but in the book she is… angrier. The characters are all a little more bitter, a little more jaded, a little less willing to forgive and forget.
The movie polished them a bit. It made them more patient, more sad than angry, and it took away many of their flaws. I didn’t really like that.
When you turn Constantine into a doddering old lady who dies of a broken heart, or when you make Minnie more feisty than furious, I feel like we do a disservice to the characters, and to Black history. Minnie is turned into a Mammy, and Constantine into a Magic Negro.
It bothered both of us, PH and I.
But then, who am I, a white person, to accuse a film of subtle racism, especially as an adaptation of a book written by another white person?
I have tried to google for the African American reception of The Help, in book or movie form, and haven’t been successful.
PH and his mother read it, too, and liked it. They are from the states, originally, and I think the book hit very close to home for them. My mother-in-law said firmly, “I know some of the women in this book.”
It hit me close to home, too. Not because I have any roots in the south, but because I grew up with an experience alien to most Canadians:
I had a black maid.
We lived in the Caribbean, and in that sort of society, either you were a maid, or you could afford a maid. There wasn’t much in between. And if you could afford a maid, why WOULDN’T you give a job to someone who needed that money?
Our house even had maid’s quarters in the back yard – a building with a room, and a bathroom, and the laundry was out there. We used it for storage. Our maid didn’t live with us, and she shuttled between several families.
She was paid for, at least in part, by my Dad’s work, I think. It was, like, part of his work benefits package. She only came in the mornings, and I think she had Thursdays and Sundays off. I used to feel awkward watching cartoons on Saturday morning while Annette vacuumed around me. She had such a sad face all the time.
She only spoke French (she was Haitian, and sent money home to her family there. When she went home for a visit, she often brought me back a gift) so I didn’t speak much with her, but my mother could speak with her.
I can’t really say much about what treatment of maids was like. I rarely happened to be at a friend’s house when their maid was in. But I think it varied widely.
When we first moved there, my mother came in and found her helping herself to a glass of water. She jumped guiltily and began to apologize! For drinking water!
My mother frowned, and opened the fridge, and gestured at everything.
“You help yourself to whatever you like, any time,” my mother told her. “If it’s something big, maybe just ask me in case I prepared it for a party or something, but otherwise, you help yourself.”
She never did, though. She never ate or drank from our fridge. But she did drink the occasional glass of water. At least she took my mother at her word that much. But if she was so cautious about doing something as simple as getting a drink, how much trouble had other employers caused her in the past??
When the Haiti earthquake happened, I thought of her. I hope her family was ok. And I hope she never felt about us the way the characters in The Help felt about their white employers.
We certainly never required that she use a different glass, and she was welcome to use any toilet she wanted.