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« BAFTA 2012 Winners. It's Our Final Pre Oscar Pit Stop | Main | RIP Whitney Houston (1963-2012) »
Sunday
Feb122012

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer on Black Artists and Image.

I know I've gone on and on about Viola Davis this year. It's no secret that I'm rooting for her in Best Actress. She's such an enormous talent and such an interesting woman and she keeps on reminding me of of both of those truths in different revealing ways this year. (I'm really going to be disheartened if The Help doesn't lead to better and bigger things. I don't want to see her play one more lame anyone could do this "best friend to the heroine" part like in Eat Pray Love.) Thanks to Mark Harris for pointing out this new interview from the Tavis Smiley show on PBS and thanks to Tavis Smiley for starting with the rough stuff. He basically begins by telling the actresses that though he is rooting for them he is uncomfortable about awarding black women for playing maids some 73 years after Hattie McDaniel's Gone With the Wind win and he was also uncomfortable with Denzel Washington's win a decade ago for playing a dirty cop in Training Day. The stars and the host really get into it (respectfully). Here's Viola's take.

That mindset... is absolutely destroying the black artist. The black artist cannot live in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity. Humanity is messy. People are messy. Caucasian actors know that. They understand that. They understand that when you bring a human being to life you show all the flaws as well as the beauty. We, as African American artists, are more concerned with image and message and not execution. Which is why every time you see our images they've been watered down to a point where they are not realistic at all. It's like all of our humanity has been washed out. We as artists cannot be politicians. We as artists can only be truth tellers.

The conversation blossoms from there. They talk August Wilson. They talk Fences. They talk Red Tails. They talk about acting as baton passing. It's great stuff and nobody pulls any punches.

Octavia's late interview response about the difficulty of convincing Hollywood to bankroll more black projects takes a nice turn, too.

Let me tell you the other thing. It begins with the ticket buyer. Dee Rees wrote an amazing film called Pariah. And if you haven't paid to see it at a theater near you, you're part of the problem.

It's inspiring that some people, and people as visible as Meryl Streep and these two, have singled out Pariah for praise. It's just too bad the movie had such extremely limited distribution and too bad it was saved until the one weekend of the year when no one would be able to pay it any attention during the Oscar glut. But bygones. It's one of my favorite pictures of last year and I'm hoping it gets a better life on DVD.

The complete interview which I've embedded after the jump is well worth a watch if you have half an hour. 

I was so riveted I'm thinking I have to see more of Tavis Smiley's show if he always sparks this much thoughtful conversation.

Watch Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

 

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Reader Comments (34)

I just hate to see somebody win an Oscar based on race, but that is the politics of Oscar. To be blunt about it, and I know it's controversial to say so, it's coming down to race card vs overdue card. We know who wins that one.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Brandz -- but that's not the point. It's not about race or at least that is what Viola is arguing. She's arguing it shouldn't be. She hopes if people are voting for her it's about execution. This is a conversation among smart black celebrities about whether they should be worrying about image or about being good artists. Viola is making a larger point here that artists need to be artists first and politicians last. Would a white actor get this much flak for playing a maid? No. (she doesn't say it here but plenty of Oscar winning best actresses have played characters with what might not be seen as "esteemed" jobs) She's playing a full human being, she wants it to be about execution and that's what actors should want. In terms of execution, man did she nail that performance and elevate her movie.

but i think this conversation is really rich.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

I love them. I really hope Viola's production company really takes off and goes amazing places. I really feel like she could be the one to help change a lot.

I get what both sides are saying. I think what he means is he doesn't have a problem with them playing maids except for the fact that they don't have the opportunity to play other things. I agree with that. Why can't black actresses get leading roles, or any role at all, where the character isn't specifically written for a black person?

I also love what Octavia said - why isn't anyone pulling their resources together and doing something about it? Be apart of the solution.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Amen, Nathaniel. Amen.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

A serious discussion on TV. So rare! It must be exhausting to be a black actress and deal with all that pressure. I have to say I'm more into Viola's train of thought. We are messy and art has to show that complexity. At least, that's what I search for in movies, plays or books.

PS There's also an interview with Kathleen Turner in two parts. Clearly we must keep track on this show.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Nathaniel,
Yes, it shouldn't be about race, I get the point. But the reality is it is about race. It's politics plain and simple.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

^ But it's not. Some people truly feel she did the best. To say that is just rude and discredits her performance. That's like if Meryl won and people just said "it's politics; it's about being overdue." Even if some people voted that way, some truly think she gave the best performance.

The only time I haven't heard "it's about race" in terms of a black actress winning was Mo'Nique because her performance was pretty much unanimously hailed. But it's not always like that, sometimes it's split and multiple performances are loved. That doesn't automatically make it about race just because some people like Viola's performance best.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Love. Her. What a great response to Smiley's limited vision of what a black actor/artist should be ant the roles they should select. I've always admired her work ever since I became aware of her on Law and Order: SVU.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

I can no longer address the Meryl Streep fans who see Viola Davis as a case of race above substance. Continue in disbelief that a black woman who under normal Academy circumstance would've been easy to beat will triumph over their beloved greatest actress of all time.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter//3|RT

Did Sandra Bullock win for an outstanding performance or was it about politics of Oscar? Everyone was saying how Streep elevated a lukewarm Julie and Julia, but politics prevailed. I suspect the same thing will happen this year, politics will win over substance. This is not anything new. This is how the game is played. AMPAS will feel good about rewarding a black maid. That's very kind of them. And the reality is politics and race will probably win this year. In my mind Streep gave the performance of the year, in any and all categories. I think she should win Oscar. But AMPAS is a political organization (like it or not) and they'll pat themselves on the back by voting for the black maid in an ensemble performance.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I'm with Tavis on this one. It doesn't sit well with me that this mostly white Academy is giving their stamp of approval on two black women in 2012 playing maids. It's a larger problem I know about the lack of genuine roles for minorities, especially black women, but there are multi-faceted performances that could have been acknowledged too, like the girl from "Pariah." Viola and Octavia should defend their choices, so no problems with that (they can't outright say that they're portraying glorified mammies with more screentime and modern sass). And yes, black actors shouldn't only play virtuous characters (Denzel and Forest Whitaker are some of my favorite lead actor wins). I just wish Viola would win for something like "Fences," and not "The Help."

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterClaude

I'm so glad Viola swatted away the "discomfort" with awarding black actors for playing maids. That reaction, to me, just screams "white guilt." Why can't those parts of our history be represented in art? It makes no sense. And, if someone does an awesome, awesome job in that kind of role, why is recognizing it any kind of shame?

Also, brandz, give up the race card. First of all, EVERY SINGLE OSCAR WIN is about the "politics" in some way. Even if/when Meryl wins again, that will help her. So don't diminish the fact that Davis gave one of the year's best-loved performances (which you can hardly deny, even if it's not your cup of tea). For those who love the performance, it has nothing to do with race. And, if she wins, she'll be helped along by the simple fact that people loved her in the The Help, and people obviously loved The Help in general (box office!)... the only people who seem to be talking about her race are those who don't love the performance and don't want to see her win an Oscar for it. Which is totally, totally fine. But to say that her success is due to her race is reductive and, frankly, insulting.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

^ Thank you. And she's clearly well-respected and loved in Hollywood, black or not.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

The "playing the maid" comparison with Hattie McDaniel strikes me as very shallow. I thought that the issue with black actresses being stuck "playing the maid" was about how "the maid" was a peripheral figure used for comic relief and occasionally to dispense bits of folk wisdom. Davis and Spencer are playing main characters who happen to be maids.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSC

Wow, loved that conversation. Davis makes a wonderful point tha doesn't get addressed often in the media: actors worth their salt want real, juicy roles and minority actors are punished for taking them. I think she deserves better than what she gets in The Help, but she elevates the performance far more than the film requires. LOVE Octavia's shout out on Pariah, and she's absolutely right. You would think actors would lead the way on equality, but in reality, interesting stories featuring African-American actors get killed at the box office. (Of course, this is actually the fault of moviegoers... so, you know, us.) I did enjoy The Help, and both of their performances, though neither is my favorite in her category. Even so, a win for Davis could open doors that I would love to see opened for her. She is clearly a phenomenal talent, not to mention an incredible speaker.

On the Meryl and Viola comparison: First off, both are hindered by being far better than their films, and Michelle Williams has the same problem. A win for Meryl will most likely happen for one of two reasons: 1) She campaigns hard like she wants it - I think it was tough for her this year, given the strong relationship with her competitor; or 2) (and I hope this is why) It's a role that can stand alongside Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice as one of her career best. Anyone who tells me The Help is their favorite movie of the year might get a look of surprise, but someone saying The Iron Lady is their favorite? Come on. Meryl is consistently great and is our greatest living actress. I think the Academy is waiting for her to find a film worthy of her talents so they can finally toss her a third (fourth, fifth...). I do honestly think Viola could go on to be one of our greatest living actresses, but she will have to fight to get there. The talent is there though, no question. I can only think of the performances from Davis/Streep/Williams as great work from actresses who could be giving us jaw-dropping work; the script just isn't there for them. Of the three, I'd actually vote Williams (though Mara's my favorite of the five).

Also, though I am a huge Bullock fan, Meryl losing to Davis >>> Meryl losing to Bullock. In both cases I will probably love the winner's speech more than I loved the performance. I must say though, much as I love Penelope Cruz, I would have given Davis the Oscar for Supporting Actress in Doubt. I really, really hope she can get great writers/directors in Hollywood to step to the plate and make great movies for her. She deserves it.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Wow, loved that conversation. Davis makes a wonderful point tha doesn't get addressed often in the media: actors worth their salt want real, juicy roles and minority actors are punished for taking them. I think she deserves better than what she gets in The Help, but she elevates the performance far more than the film requires. LOVE Octavia's shout out on Pariah, and she's absolutely right. You would think actors would lead the way on equality, but in reality, interesting stories featuring African-American actors get killed at the box office. (Of course, this is actually the fault of moviegoers... so, you know, us.) I did enjoy The Help, and both of their performances, though neither is my favorite in her category. Even so, a win for Davis could open doors that I would love to see opened for her. She is clearly a phenomenal talent, not to mention an incredible speaker.

On the Meryl and Viola comparison: First off, both are hindered by being far better than their films, and Michelle Williams has the same problem. A win for Meryl will most likely happen for one of two reasons: 1) She campaigns hard like she wants it - I think it was tough for her this year, given the strong relationship with her competitor; or 2) (and I hope this is why) It's a role that can stand alongside Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice as one of her career best. Anyone who tells me The Help is their favorite movie of the year might get a look of surprise, but someone saying The Iron Lady is their favorite? Come on. Meryl is consistently great and is our greatest living actress. I think the Academy is waiting for her to find a film worthy of her talents so they can finally toss her a third (fourth, fifth...). I do honestly think Viola could go on to be one of our greatest living actresses, but she will have to fight to get there. The talent is there though, no question. I can only think of the performances from Davis/Streep/Williams as great work from actresses who could be giving us jaw-dropping work; the script just isn't there for them. Of the three, I'd actually vote Williams (though Mara's my favorite of the five).

Also, though I am a huge Bullock fan, Meryl losing to Davis >>> Meryl losing to Bullock. In both cases I will probably love the winner's speech more than I loved the performance. I must say though, much as I love Penelope Cruz, I would have given Davis the Oscar for Supporting Actress in Doubt. I really, really hope she can get great writers/directors in Hollywood to step to the plate and make great movies for her. She deserves it.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I guess I should preface this with saying that I'm not American, so perhaps despite being black I am not completely au fait with American race issues, but Tavis' question REALLY irked me. If people are being honest and saying that awards should be about "performance" and not the issues behind it, then it should not matter that they happen to be playing maids, or whatever if it's just about performance let it just be about performance. And, I'm completely in agreement with Viola that there's much too much focus on image.

People like Tavis bring up the fact that Denzel won for a villain (not mentioning the fact that he was hardly a villain in Glory, which he won for too) or that Octavia and Viola are playing maids and don't even mention the fact that Denzel won for playing a star, Sophie and Don won for playing heroes, Morgan won for playing a hero and so on. They just zero in on the nods that seem "bad" for them, and performance is performance. Should the AMPAS ignore the performances that show black actors in imperfect roles in a quest to be progressive?

And, even when I want to say he's just expressing his umbrage, as he's allowed, he ends on the note that AMPAS should do the "right" thing and let Viola and Octavia win and move on, which for me brings such an undertone of race to the process which just annoys me.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

@Nathaniel - "she doesn't say it here but plenty of Oscar winning best actresses have played characters with what might not be seen as 'esteemed' jobs."
In fact, if Meryl were to win this year, she'd win for playing a person who isn't "esteemed" at all - at least not by Hollywood and (I suspect) most of her fans.

I am a major Meryl fan; I thought she deserved to win for Prada and Adaptation and (among those nominated) Julie and Julia (and I could go on with her movies in the '90s and '80s), but I don't think she deserves to win this year. It's very close, as Viola and Meryl both gave outstanding performances in less-than-perfect movies, but Viola's movie is a lot better than Meryl's, and Viola's performance seemed just a tad more human than Meryl's. I guess I prefer Meryl with a bit more warmth behind her.

But this isn't supposed to be a Meryl vs. Viola thread! So I'll close this by thanking Nat for posting the interview, I really enjoyed it. I can understand why Viola debated taking the role in The Help for three months - because she knew that the film's portrayal of the Jim Crow south would be dismissed as overly rosy when the film was released. I don't think she wanted to get into that debate on Tavis Smiley, given that it is a dark horse contender for best picture and all.

BTW, did anyone care when Lynn Redgrave played a maid in Gods and Monsters? She was nominated for an Oscar, too.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Sorry guys for the Off Topic.
Any Bafta live streaming link???

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTerris

What a fantastic conversation (the one in the video -- this comment thread seems to have lost track way too quickly and is forgetting what these people are saying in the video). Octavia and Viola have been very "noble" in mainstream interviews when pressed on some of these issues. Great that Mr. Smiley (warranting a suspicious opinion of his own) goaded them into this argument. Really lovely positions from both women. Definitely renegotiated a lot power in the conversation.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I'm just curious how strong a candidate Viola Davis would be to win the oscar if her film wasn't such a success. I think a lot of her momentum (and octavia spencer's) to go on and win is from the fact that the film is hugely popular and a success. She's a big part as to why The Help has even been recognized this awards season, as to where Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams, Glenn close are in much more under-seen, and under-valued films. It's obvious the film works so well because of the performance and without the strength of the acting I doubt audiences would have catched on like it did. It could have been just a film with black maids in it but viola davis added in the humanity, liked she talked about, into the character further seeping into the film itself making it resonate with much more emotional depth. I don't think the academy patted themselves on the back for this, they were probably too busy reaching for tissues instead.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

Poppy what a great way to put it.

I don't think the academy patted themselves on the back for this, they were probably too busy reaching for tissues instead.
I'm referring all doubters to this :)

February 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Fascinating interview, but I take a bit offense at Octavia's response regarding Pariah:

"And if you haven't paid to see it at a theater near you, you're part of the problem."

I think her criticism is unfocused, particularly for a devout movie fanatic movie who would love to see Pariah but it is not playing at any theater near me. The criticism should be directed at the various film distributors who simply will not release challenging, independent films in markets other than New York, L.A., Chicago, and San Francisco. And for the record this doesn't apply to films featuring a leading turn from a minority actor. I live in a decent-sized city in the South with a thriving artistic community and a very popular art-house theater and we still haven't received Coriolanus or We Need to Talk About Kevin, either (luckily I got to see "Kevin" on a recent trip to London, thank god). We just recently received A Dangerous Method a week ago and it was originally released in November.

In my opinion, Hollywood really needs to fix this limited release/one-week-qualifier bullshit practices and have faith that if their films have strong material and good talent behind them, then they WILL find an audience outside of major metropolises. It's just frustrating for movie lovers like me who wish to see many of these critically acclaimed films but are limited by their geographic region.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Debates such as this are very much needed, and I am so glad that Viola and Octavia were so passionate in their points of view. As a black person (and performer myself), I am always disheartened when people take Tavis's opinion for the same reason that Davis expresses. Many times it's those same people who deride a film like "Precious" for perceivedly negative depictions while extolling something like "The Blind Side," which is so inherently racist and insulting to people of color.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Debates such as this are very much needed, and I am so glad that Viola and Octavia were so passionate in their points of view. As a black person (and performer myself), I am always disheartened when people take Tavis's opinion for the same reason that Davis expresses. Many times it's those same people who deride a film like "Precious" for perceivedly negative depictions while extolling something like "The Blind Side," which is so inherently racist and insulting to people of color.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Always nice to be reminded that people can have an intelligent discourse.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

If "Pariah" were actually playing anywhere near me at any point in time, I would have been there opening night. But it wasn't. So it's not all the moviegoers' faults all the time, Octavia.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJHR

^ I must agree. Even films nominated for Oscars still haven't opened in my city, and don't appear to plan on doing so. :/ It's highly annoying. It almost makes film this superior art form that can only be seen by people in certain cities or people getting screeners because they're "important." Guess I don't matter enough to see the movie if I want to.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

*even if I want to

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Having lived on both the major-metropolitan and the semi-rural sides of media access, I can totally relate to being miffed by what Octavia seems to be saying here. I'm thinking/hoping that, as often as these two have had to field these questions time and again on TV shows, in interviews, and along press junkets conducted (like Tavis's show) in top-access cities, when Octavia seems "you," she means "you." Not that the only people who would share Tavis's qualm would be a New Yorker or an LA'er. But a lot of the the folks who have hit these gals with these tough questions - similar to the ones Mo'Nique kept having to swat back at in '09 - have been New Yorkers or LA'ers. Notice that Tavis doesn't say, "I did see Pariah!"

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Well, nice discussion, but it's kind of a moot point to discuss it with actors, who after all must work. Given that they are actors of color the chances for work -- good work, anyway -- come with less frequency in mainstream American cinema.

That's the issue. Not whether Davis should accept roles like this but that it should be THIS movie (also, The Blind Side, Precious, Crash, Hustle & Flow, Training Day, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Gone With the Wind, and other facile and/or negative portrayals of Black characters) that get the big budgets for production and distribution, and that get feted at places like the Oscars.

I'm ambivalent about Tyler Perry for this reason. I don't like Madea, and his movies come across as simplistic -- but at least he's making movies about Black society that is neither mired in inner city cliches nor borderline saintly. He finances them himself, and that throws into question the kind of overdetermination that comes with the way production companies pick and choose what projects "of color" they want to produce. Its not actors' responsibility (by themselves) to stop taking roles that are offered, it's people in really powerful positions to direct what gets produced for actors of color and HOW they are made and, later, how they are marketed and distributed.

Mainstream Hollywood as well as independent cinema are mired in the same racial constructs that the rest of society is. That mandates that certain stereotypes rule, no matter how much worthy "complexity" individual actors and writers imbue the subject matter. Black filmmakers have been a part of American cinema for a long time -- why is it that the same kinds of Black characters/issues keep popping up, as opposed to, say, the mainstream studio variation of Medicine for Melancholy, or, hell, some adventurous writers first attempt at adapting August Wilson for the big screen. One would think that would be a major vanity project for a lot of people.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaula

It's everything.

I think Tavis' question is fair game, and his August Wilson reference gets it. It's NOT that they're winning for playing mammies or cops. IT's WHY can they only win for playing crooked cops or mammies. Why is The Help a 100 million dollar best picture nominated-success, whereas a film like NIGHT CATCHES US (story about the aftermath of the Black Panter movement) or BROTHER TO BROTHER (the Harlem Renaissance) or PARIAH barely get a release? Why is it that onstage, Anna Deveare Smith is one of the most eloquent voices theatre has to offer (seriously, read TWILIGHT LOS ANGELOS or FIRES IN THE MIRROR) but in film, she gets minor roles in underwhelming movies/TV shows (Rachel Getting Married is the exception). Theatre? We get Dael Orlandersmith, Lynn Nottage and PASSING STRANGE and the venerable August WIlson.

... or what Paula said.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

God, they're both just so smart.

I think that Viola hit the nail on the head when she said that the only criticism that would bother her would be if someone felt her character fell flat, or wasn't multi-dimensional. If maids really existed in the South--and they did--there should be no question as to whether or not the character should be put to screen. All that matters is that the character feel like an authentic human.

Before I had seen WEEKEND, I was a little perturbed to read that during their weekend romance, the two lead men used heavy drugs. It just seemed a little... unnecessary, like saying, "These guys are gay! Don't believe me? Well then watch them frequent clubs and snort coke!" But after seeing the movie, and having watched the Tavis Smiley segment, I realize how misplaced my apprehension was. Sure, drug use might be a stereotype of urban gays, but the central couple felt so real and authentic that I no longer worried about the political-correctness of the portrayal. I think that's what Viola was getting at; if an actor/filmmaker delivers, "stereotypes" evaporate and the humanity comes through.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

arkaan -- i get your point but one of the issues here is entertainment value. "easier" movies like THE HELP are always going to be bigger than tiny thorny movies, no matter the subject, color or stereotypes that are swirling about or commented on within them.

Bryan -- well stated. I was confused that so many people were upset about Weekend for that reason. I don't feel that comfortable around drug use but I know enough of the world to say that I didn't once think "this is unrealistic!"

Paula -- i have the same thing with Tyler Perry. I'm glad he's there but i still feel ambivalent because of the quality of the movies (i.e. not great movies). The thing that i am a bit confused about is why his success hasn't let to more copycat success, with a broader range of artistic voices.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR
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