Maybe it’s purely coincidental that the number one movie in the nation in recent weeks — and one of the top-selling books in America — has been “The Help,” which is about Black maids in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s.
Maybe it just so happens that the Census Bureau informed us last week that the overall poverty rate has climbed to 15.1 percent for Americans across the board but to 27 percent for Blacks and to 40 percent for Black children. That goes along, of course, with our already well documented 16.7 percent Black unemployment rate.
Highlighted by “The Help,” we’re forced to recognize a disturbing pattern of Black economic disenfranchisement, complicated by a seemingly worsening series of race-based negative factors.
For example, according to Catalyst, which focuses on women’s employment issues, women comprised 51.5 percent of management, professional and related positions in 2010. However, Black women represented just 5.3 percent of those same positions. A different level of discrimination than that endured by maids in the 60s, but painful, nonetheless, for Black females.
It appears that the book and the movie have created an interesting backdrop, reminding us that even though African Americans may have thought they were suffering when they were relegated to demeaning, menial jobs during the Civil Rights era, the 21st century is, in many ways, proving to be even worse because, in far too many Black households, we have no jobs at all or are significantly underemployed.
I must admit I didn’t actually see the movie version of “The Help.” I don’t go to movies much, any more.
But, hold up! It’s not just me.
According to those who follow such things, move ticket sales actually peaked in 2002, at 1.55 billion, but have fallen off since then to 1.33 billion in 2010. That’s 220 million fewer tickets sold!
Call me crazy if you want, but like so many others I’ve become a slave (there’s that word, again) to media multi-tasking, and I find it increasingly difficult to sit still and narrow my input to a single screen for an extended period of time. Now, for me, a movie is just something that’s on the small screen, in the house, while I’m doing two or three other things.
Stop me if I’m wrong, but don’t you more and more find yourself listening to music while exercising, emailing while web-surfing, and —God forbid — responding to urgent text messages at traffic stops while driving from place to place?
We’re being bombarded, constantly, by all manner of print, video, audio and digital input and we’re learning — for good or bad — to juggle two or three at a time.
Brilliant university researchers are telling us, for example, that the average American is being exposed each day to more than 3,000 advertising messages alone. That’s a lot. But, you know what? It’s starting to feel “real normal.”
And you know what? Two hundred twenty million former movie ticket buyers are starting to feel the same way about movie theaters — due to technology or due to the rapidly rising price of admission, which far outstrips the rate of inflation.
Like I said, I didn’t see the movie or read the book, which was on the New York Times best seller list for an amazing 100 weeks and sold an incredible 5 million copies. The topic, however, based upon what I’ve seen in reviews and on video trailers, does intrigue me.
Apparently, the story included all of the standard Black-white confrontation episodes we’ve learned to expect from Mississippi during that period. The women worked hard, were grossly underpaid and constantly disrespected. None of the content was new or surprising. It was, I’ve been informed, explained in an engaging and telegenic way for movie audiences, who had either forgotten how things used to be for Black maids, or who today may be too young to have ever known in the first place.
Both film critics and predominantly female, mostly older audiences seem to love the movie. It came out of the gate at a respectable $35 million, but wound up only in second place at the box office. However, to the surprise of the entire country, it went on to claim first place for three weeks in a row over the more highly touted and substantially bigger-budgeted “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
During the movie’s first week of release, Cinema Score rated “The Help” an A+, a designation that has been given only about twice a year since 2004. And, even in a year when summer movie audiences had fallen to their lowest levels in 14 years, “The Help” grossed $137 million as of last week. That’s with a production budget of a “measly” $25 million, as compared to the $93 million it took to produce “Planet of the Apes.”
Recently, there’s been “Oscar buzz” for the brilliant African-American women who played the two lead roles — especially for Octavia Spencer, who portrayed Minny, the outspoken “sister” who refused to bite her tongue when she felt she was being treated unfairly and who wound up being fired from 19 jobs as a result.
Sounds like a great flick. And if I went to movies at all, I’d probably go to see it.
But, as is the case in most issues, there’s a reason to be cautious about “The Help.” There is, in fact, a temptation to believe that the movie’s message is that — back in the day — Black maids used to be mistreated, they used to be underpaid and, at one time way back in the Civil Rights era, Black female employees used to be the victims of sexual harassment and discrimination in the work place.
If you came away from having read the book or having watched the movie believing any of those things, you need to get another belief.
According to a 2010 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 1.4 million persons employed as “maids and housekeeping cleaners” right now in the United States, 89 percent of whom are female. The hourly wage level for those maids started at $10.17, for an annual wage of $21,150, and the median wage was $9.28, some going as low as $7.68 an hour.
Having maids has also never been a Southern-only phenomenon. To that point, the Florida Courier newspaper recently wrote: “Historians estimate that 70-90 percent of the African- American women who worked before WWII did some type of domestic service for whites.”
Want to be reminded that Black maids caring for well-to-do white families’ children isn’t a relic from the past? Just take a casual stroll on any sunny day through Society Hill or Rittenhouse Square, where the average household income exceeds $322,000.
You’ll note that it’s quite common to see baby carriages containing white toddlers or infants being pushed by Black women. It’s also a rare elderly, disabled white senior citizen who’s not being guided along the sidewalk by a youngish Black female.
“The Help,” during these precarious times of runaway Black poverty and unemployment levels, is also a somber reminder that even marginal, low-paying jobs are now in great demand across the country.
Think I’m kidding?
Another intriguing bit of information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ files on “Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners” is that in 2010, 5 percent of maids and domestics were Asian, 40.8 percent were Latino and just 16.3 percent were Black.
Who would have thought that the day would come when, at the same time, college-educated Black women were holding on “by the skin of their teeth” in Corporate America and Black women without college degrees could no longer be hired at all, even as domestics?
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.