Since last September, when I interviewed the actresses Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira about their film Roma – both are now Oscar nominees, for best actress and best supporting actress, respectively – I’ve been thinking about something Aparicio said.
The film is a memory piece, an elegiac love letter from Alfonso Cuaron, the renowned Mexican director (Gravity, Children of Men), to Libo, the nanny who helped raise him and his siblings in the 1970s in the posh Mexico City neighbourhood of the title. Cuaron, 57, is many people’s favourite director, including mine, and he imbues Roma with every molecule of his talent: He wrote, produced and directed it; he was its cinematographer and editor. Aparicio plays Cleo (standing in for Libo), and de Tavira plays Sofia, Cleo’s employer and soon-to-be-single mother of four (standing in for Cuaron’s mother).
Everything about the way Cuaron worked was unusual, from his casting process (observing his potential actors as they improvised scenes together) to his doling out of the script (to foster spontaneity and naturalism, he’d tell each actor what he wanted from each scene, without telling them what the other actors would do). Aparicio, 25, who had just qualified to be a teacher and who speaks Mixtec (we spoke through an interpreter), had never acted before. De Tavira, who speaks Spanish and English, had studied acting, and was accomplished in television, film and especially theatre.
Now, here’s the conversation that I keep thinking about. I asked Aparicio about a scene early in the film, which establishes Cleo’s role in Sofia’s family. In it, Sofia, her husband and their children sit watching television. Cleo is there watching, too – but she’s also moving behind them, clearing their plates. She’s part of the family, but not in the family; she’s with them but not of them.
“Did Cuaron discuss with you how Cleo feels about this?” I asked. “Is she ever resentful that she’s working all the time?”
“Yes, we talked,” Aparicio replied. “He said she was part of the family as soon as she arrived. And she feels happy to be working, taking care of those children, because she loves them. She would do anything for them, just as any mother would do.”
Hmm. I have two children, and almost from the moment they were born, my husband and I hired caregivers – the first, Shire, who was born in Trinidad, worked with us for the year we lived in Los Angeles; the second, Olga, who was born in the Philippines, works with us still, 24 years and counting. (Our son has a lot of special needs, and Olga has stuck with us through so much, she deserves the Order of Canada. But that’s another story.) I unreservedly love both women. I believe they genuinely love my children. But do they consider themselves part of my family? Do I? There’s no one answer.
My fellow critics and I have had spirited debates about Roma, about whether Cuaron is co-opting or overromanticizing Cleo’s story. That question runs through a lot of films right now. Look at Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly and written by him and two other white men. For every viewer who considers it a charming, somewhat-true story about male friendship – between a jazz pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), and the driver, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), he hired in the 1960s to navigate the racist American south – there’s another who sees one more Magical Negro, a black character who exists just to teach a white character a valuable lesson.
Look at The Upside, directed by Neil Burger, who is white. Do you see a heart-warming friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic (Bryan Cranston) and his ex-criminal caregiver (Kevin Hart)? Or do you see an unequal relationship controlled by a rich white loner who pays a poorer black man for companionship?
These films skate over how issues of money complicate love and friendship, because North American films are as squeamish about class as they are about race. (In the United States, class and race are often interwoven, further complicating things.) In Green Book, Shirley may be the educated one, the boss, but Lip is white, and that gives him the unspoken authority to call most of the shots. In Roma, Sofia is a wealthy, pale-skinned resident of Mexico City who speaks elegant Spanish, while Cleo is working class, darker-skinned, and speaks Mixtec. It’s a given that Cleo has an uncomplicated earthiness, and that she grounds Sofia and provides succour for her.
It’s pointless to ponder what Roma might have looked like had it been written and/or directed by a domestic worker. Cuaron is telling his story, so Cleo is his creation, his version. But it’s interesting to look at films about class and race told from other points of view.
In If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from the novel by James Baldwin, nearly every threat comes from a white person, especially a white person in authority. Ditto The Hate U Give, where all the code-switching in the world can’t help a black kid pulled over by a white police officer.
In her film Leave No Trace, as in her earlier film Winter’s Bone, writer/director Debra Granik shows us how tenuous a hold people of no means have over their own lives. In her version of the United States, it’s not quite a crime to have no money, but it’s awfully close. Same with Mid90s, where writer/director Jonah Hill shows us the panic of a barely middle-class mom (Katherine Waterston) worried that her son’s friendship with skate punks will force him down to their level.
In Support the Girls, Lisa (Regina Hall) may be the manager of her Hooters-like sports bar, but her white male boss continually reminds her of that “privilege,” her white male customers treat her like a servant, and a job interview she does at the end of the film suggests that things will be little better in the corporate world. In both Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Favourite, having no money drives a female character to do desperate things. Unlike Green Book or The Upside, there is more humiliation than there is bonding.
In Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a black police officer (John David Washington) and his white partner (Adam Driver) work together to bring down KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace), but Lee doesn’t end the film with their victory – he sends us into the lobby with terrifying footage from Charlottesville in our heads, reminding us how rampant racism still is.
And in the savage Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley, our hero Cassius (Lakieth Stanfield) is both poor and black. Using his white voice gets him a promotion and a kick up to middle class. But when his white overlord, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), dangles an obscene amount of money to get him to do something despicable, it reminds him – and us – that to people like Lift, no amount of money will make Cassius anything other than less-than.
So does Cleo love Sofia’s children? Probably. Would she love them if she weren’t paid to? The film doesn’t ask.