Viola Davis had been a theatre mainstay for decades before she burst into national consciousness with her role as Mrs. Miller in the 2008 film Doubt, based on the play of the same name. Her performance in the Meryl Streep vehicle earned her an Oscar nomination. Soon after that, she found herself starring on Broadway opposite Denzel Washington in Fences. And only one year later, was starring as Aibileen Clark in The Help, for which she was nominated at the Oscars for Best Leading Actress. To date, Davis now has an Oscar under her belt for the film version of Fences, as well as a SAG Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and a Critic’s Choice Award, plus an Emmy to boot for her role as Annalise Keating in the ABC drama How To Get Away With Murder.
Davis is a prime example of the fact that behind every perceived meteoric rise was years of hard work and dedication, slowly climbing the ladder one rung at a time. While Doubt was her breakout, The Help was, in many ways, her launch to national consciousness. But with her new found success also comes a newfound perspective. In an interview with the New York Times about her new film Widow, Davis was asked if she regrets any roles she’s ever done, and as it turns out, she regrets appearing in The Help.
“I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, ‘I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it,’ I never heard that in the course of the movie.”
However, there were still things she appreciated about the experience…
“The friendships that I formed [working on The Help] are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor.”
She has a point. The film, based on the Kathryn Stockett novel of the same name, centered Skeeter Phelan, a young white woman played by Emma Stone who was working on a book about black maids over the black maids that the film purported to be telling a story about. The movie was much more about Phelan’s education as a white woman finally taking notice of the everyday prejudice and racism around her than it was about the women with whom she was forging relationships, in particular Davis’ Aibileen.
Many agreed with Davis’ nuanced answer…
I actually read the article and she had a perfectly logical rationale! I wasn't sure where she was going with that comment. But you know not many people will actually read the article so this tweet will mislead them and they'll say unnecessarily negative things about Ms. Davis.
— Cammi (@CammiCance) September 12, 2018
— Molly (@mememoreme) September 12, 2018
I like The Help, but I understand Viola's point, she and Octavia are the primary characters treat like supporting role to Emma Stone leading role, and at the end of the day this sounds very strange, because personally I always feels that Davis was the lead character, not Stone.
— João Paulo (@JPaulo645) September 12, 2018
Others were glad that this conversation was being forced into the open…
— Astead (@AsteadWesley) September 12, 2018
I should be less glib: just saying I imagine a whole bunch of people are finding out, today, that their beloved flick is deeply controversial.
And a whole bunch of people have been waiting to get The Help out the paint for a long, long time
— Astead (@AsteadWesley) September 12, 2018
…”The Help” could have been SOOOO much more especially in the hands of a Black woman director and screenwriter. But you know, agendas have to be met.
— ReBecca Theodore-Vachon (@FilmFatale_NYC) September 12, 2018
And another pointed out an equally important quote from the interview that isn’t getting nearly enough press…
“The responsibility of feeling like I am the great black female hope for women of color has been a real professional challenge. Being that role model and picking up that baton when you’re struggling in your own life has been difficult.” — @violadavis https://t.co/nROA0lQOgS
— Sasha Panaram (@SashaPanaram) September 12, 2018
When people are turned into icons, especially those from marginalized communities, the lack of representation can turn that person into the de facto spokesperson for the whole community. This is both an unrealistic and unfair burden and speaks volumes about systems of oppression and the fact that room is often made only for a small handful of voices outside of the majority.