The film Yes, Ma’am is a documentary look at the profession of domestic service, race relations, and injustice. Filmed in New Orleans’ Garden District, it is a story of the blurring of lines endemic to the domestic work environment, and of the exploitation the system can create. The conflation of work place and home, of employee and friend, of families, of work and love, can have both positive and negative points. But with the balance of power skewed toward the wealthy, White employers, Black workers are left vulnerable.
Sponsored by the Amistad Research Center and produced by Gary Goldman, Yes, Ma’am premiered at the New Orleans Museum of Art Stern Auditorium on February 25, 1981. It went on to air nationally on PBS in 1982. The documentary is made up of first-person interviews with Black domestic workers, their White employers, and the families of both. Scenes alternate between group interviews and solo talking head shots. The film enjoyed a renewed interest in wake of 2011’s The Help, a fictional film based on the novel of the same title by Kathryn Stockett, which explored the relationship between affluent White employers and their Black domestic “help.” In fact, Yes, Ma’am is sometimes referred to as “the real ‘Help'.
An accompanying discussion guide created for the film explains that, “Basically non-industrialized, the pre-World War I South traditionally absorbed large numbers of blacks in domestic service jobs. No doubt the preference for blacks had antecedents in slavery.” It is these roots in slavery that set up the problematic dynamic portrayed in the film. From the opening shots of the film, we a “mammy” figure, a motif which is repeated throughout the film, even as décor in the home of one of the employers. Worker Sam Curtis, who has been employed by the same family for 45 years, talks of the recognition he has earned within the community. In nearly the same breath, he mentions that he is often referred to by his employers’ last name. While these examples seem blatant and shocking, the hold-overs from the culture of slavery can be even more insidious.
A group of White teenagers discussing the domestic workers in their homes claim that they are “taken care of,” and that their wages include their parents bailing the workers’ children out of jail and extra money at Christmas for vacations, “not to mention the clothes and food.” The workers, on the other hand, make it clear that they are not working for favors and cast-offs. They need “more money… not all that junk.” In some instances, conventions of compensation have become so blurred that employers expect their employees to do work out of love. In one scene, as housekeeper Marguerite points out the extra work she is doing to help prepare for her employer’s upcoming party “for her husband, not mine,” her employer insists, “You wanted to do something special for him though… if you weren’t so devoted you wouldn’t do things like this.” “Sure, sure,” she answers, “put it in the paycheck, honey.”
The conflation of employment with friendship is understandable when one considers the intimate terms on which the parties interact. In many ways, the domestic worker functions as a member of the family. “Men and women historically filled household jobs,” the discussion guide tells us, “but the ubiquity of the black maid gave testimony to the fact that domestic service was a female-dominated occupation.” Indeed, most of the workers we meet in the film are women, and these women serve the role not only of friend and confidant to the lady of the house, but also of surrogate mother to her children. A young White man talks about not understanding as a child that the family’s maid was an employee and not a family member. In one particularly moving scene, a domestic worker describes an incident when the young girl in care covered herself in mud in order to make herself “Black” so that she could seek permission from her mother to sleep downstairs with her caregiver. Another worker explains her role as mother to both her “brown-eyed children” and her “blue-eyed children.”
But this closeness to their employers’ families perhaps comes at a price to the worker’s own families. Long hours mean that workers are forced to spend time away from their own families. Children talk about the embarrassment of having a parent in domestic work. One says that she has aspirations of becoming a nurse, “something of higher quality than what my mother does.” An older worker speaks of her children, saying “they feel ashamed of these things that I had to do to give them an opportunity to get education, but I feel like a hero.”
With changing attitudes come changes to the profession itself. We are introduced to the Household Technicians of Louisiana, founded in 1970. They criticize the “patronage system” and carefully describe themselves as “household technicians” instead of “M-A-I-Ds” – a word they spell out rather than pronounce. The group contrasts themselves with the old guard service employees, saying that they work “for the money” and not for the job.
The ultimate theme of the film is that of a changing tide. While opportunities were limited for previous generations, the money provided by domestic work has paid for more education for the next generation, who have aspirations for more diverse careers and for further professionalization of the industry. Perhaps the complicated dynamics depicted in the film will soon cease to exist.
The Yes, Ma’am collection at Amistad includes not only the final cut of the film, it also includes hours of unseen outtake material. Close to 150 film reels, both 8mm and 16mm, and 30 ¼” reel-to-reel audio tapes worth of interviews are preserved in Amistad’s vaults. For information on viewing the film, contact the Amistad Research Center.
Images from the Yes, Ma’am collection. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.