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« TIFF: Nicole Kidman and "Destroyer" | Main | Soundtracking: "Adventures in Babysitting" »
Wednesday
Sep122018

Viola Davis has regrets about 'The Help'

by Murtada Elfadl

Viola Davis has some regrets about her Oscar-nominated performance in The Help (2011). In the film she played Aibileen Clark one of several black maids - along with Oscar winner Octavia Spencer - interviewed by a young white journalist (Emma Stone) who’s writing a book about the racism and prejudice they faced in 1960s Mississippi. At the time the film faced criticism of having a white saviour problem. That is, only dealing with racism from the perspective of the white characters and what they do to combat it.

It’s a story as old as film, with numerous examples. Some set in the US like Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and others elsewhere, Cry Freedom (1990), to name just a couple. Davis agrees with that take, telling the NYTimes in a recent interview...

 

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.

What she still holds dear though are the friendships she made on that set:

The friendships that I formed 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.

Many of them are also Oscar winners. When The Help was released it had two Oscar winners amongst its cast; Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Mary Steenburgen for Melvin and Howard (1980). Spencer won for The Help. Since then we got Davis for Fences (2016), Stone for La La Land (2016) and Allison Janney for I, Tonya (2017). A new name has been added last week with Cicely Tyson receiving one of this year’s Honorary Oscars for her distinguished career which includes one nomination for Sounder (1972), as well as a Tony and two Emmys.

Do you still have fond memories of Viola's piercingly heartbreaking performance? I do, while acknowledging the issues she raised in her comments. 

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Reader Comments (29)

Regrets about The Help?
Not enough snot in it?
Well, she compensated for that later - snotted her way to the Academy award!

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Davis and Spencer were excellent, but I never loved The Help and couldn't understand the love at the time. It's kind of soapy, melodramatic and popcorny in a bad way. I think Davis's comments are valid.

Davis and Streep were both worthy nominees, but I wouldn't have given it to them if I had the choice. Juliette Binoche, Olivia Colman and Tilda Swinton were all on on top form, so it's a shame the Best Actress field was so weak in the end.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterevangelina

Good. Fucking good.

@Ulrich: Eat a bag of Ds.

She's great in it, yet that movie is beyond problematic. And actually her regrets align perfectly with what she advocates and relates to her own experience and life story as a woman of color.

PS: Damn, those tatas.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

I don't remember her saying this at the time then i'd have had more respect for her comments whilst still enjoying the film which is let's be honest popcorn film making,basic characters,basic premise but done well.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I thought the Aibileen storyline was incredibly moving. Aibileen's firing iis heartbreaking because you know that Aibileen is the only shot that child has of growing up with any self-confidence and being loved. I thought she communicated the point beautifully in her scenes.

Also, the 'Eat My Shit' scene sort of zaps the film of the serious message I believe Davis was trying to convey. Blame Minny for that one! (Actually, don't blame Minny. I adore Miss Minny! The scene still makes me laugh).

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBillyHeldAnOscar

This perspective on moviemaking is a little zero-sum for my taste. The fact that The Help was made doesn't limit or deny the opportunity to make movies from a different perspective. It seems like the main gripe here is with the source material.

Davis could have rejected the role and played a district attorney or National Security Advisor in some blockbuster. Perfect is not the enemy of good.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMiz Miz

She's not wrong. The Help is the very definition of a white savior movie, though I do wonder if the points Davis raises are at a script level or a result, perhaps, during the editing process? If it's a purely narrative issue, surely the screenplay clued her into the fact that the maids' voices served an overall storyline. (Regardless, Davis is fantastic in it.)

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I don't see why she is saying this now?

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

markgordonuk - she was asked if she had regrets about any of her roles... and this was her answer.

September 12, 2018 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

Agreed, although the ends justified the means. Viola was among our finest character actresses pre-2011 but that iffy melodrama catapulted her toward stardom. Hopefully she now has enough clout to demand rewrites of problematic scripts or to decline them outright.

BTW: I rewatched Out of Sight for the first time in years the other night and was floored to see her as Don Cheadle's put-upon wife. She made a three-course meal of just a few lines.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterW.J.

I get it now,she regrets it,would she play it differently now.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Miz Miz - Amen!

Why does a good movie have to be retroactively demonized based on our current overly-simplistic definition of wokeness?

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBD

In case anybody is interested, here is a transcript from a conversation Viola had a couple of years ago where she outlines her problems with the movie:

http://www.bafta.org/media-centre/transcripts/a-life-in-pictures-viola-davis-transcript

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterevangelina

I love her, but still take issue on her self-aggrandizing.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTFU

The final part of the quote is missing that she also gave a shutout to Tate Taylor, the director, as being incredibly talented. So she didn't throw the movie under the bus, she raised very genuine concerns on how Hollywood (and media in general) depict and approach issues like racism to the commodity of certain audiences.

Glad she now has the commodity to be able to express this without her career suffering for it.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlexD

The victim-saint maid stereotype, and the story of black women waken by a white teenager trying to be a writer...this is a very problematic film. I totally understand why lots of white people go crazy for it. The guilt needs a release. A story championing harmony is the fitting remedy.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Everyone complaining about Davis daring to have mixed feelings about The Help really should read that interview that @evangelina linked to. If going to the other site is too much, here's the relevant part:

"Like I said, I absolutely love the premise, absolutely love it, I love the fact that Skeeter said ‘I am going to write a story from the maids’ perspective of what it feels like to work with these white women’. Operative term meaning the maids’ perspective. I don’t feel like it was from our perspective, that’s the problem I had with it. I had it from the very beginning. Now there were a lot of things in the book that I did like, and then there were some things in the book that I had issues with, number one meaning, or being, that Skeeter would offer the women money to tell their stories, knowing that it’s dangerous for them, knowing that they’re meeting late at night, in their homes, and I think at one point she offered someone $38. And in the book the response with all the women were, “No Miss Skeeter we don’t want the money, we just want to tell our story.” They would take the money. They would take the money. I mean look at Aibileen was not even eating in the book. She’s eating preserves given to her by her neighbour. She is barely making a living wage, they would take the money! That’s number one. Number two, the anger, the vitriol, and the hatred that they would have towards these white women if they were asked, if they were put in a situation where they were isolated, would have been vocalised. You didn’t see none of that! You saw Minny putting the shit in the pie, but to be perfectly honest I think a huge part of that, which I am so thankful it was in the book, but a huge part of that is comedic in nature, so it’s an easier pill to swallow. But in reality, if you were to isolate those women, and there was actually one scene where this one woman did express her anger, it was removed from the movie. These black women would hate these women. But I felt, and I still feel, that one of the reasons why this movie was so successful, and I do think fantastic actors, love everybody in it, wonderful performances, is a lot of people were brought up with these co-mothers, they were brought up with these maids, these maids stood in the gap for a lot of people. And I think one of the reasons why they weren’t shown as messy is because nobody wants to stain the memory of that black woman who loved them probably more than their mothers loved them.

[Applause]

They want to preserve that memory of them being loving and the women who wanted to be with them all the time, you know, and so they want to keep them pure. And so there was a constant battle that I had, and for instance I wrote that monologue, that monologue was not in the script.

[Applause]

It wasn’t in there, there was a scene with Minny and Aibileen where they’re in, it’s the big scene where they’re dancing, all the people are dancing, and that’s when they’re doing the bunny hop and all of that, and Minny and Aibileen are in the back, and they’re preparing the food and they’re laughing about all the clothes that everyone is wearing and Minny says , “Well I’ve got to go out there and serve some food”, and I say “Yeah, you serving crackers to the crackers!”. And you know, cut. And it was cut because they felt it was too mean.

But, there was no problem with the white characters saying ‘nigger nigger nigger’. So it was not telling the story. It just wasn’t, and I felt the power of that narrative, as if, what if you did, I don’t think you’re losing anything, I really didn’t. And it was a huge problem because I felt that, the other side of that, to make it even more complicated, is I think that for a lot of people the only problem they really had with it was the fact that we were playing maids. And we didn’t look cute. That’s not the problem, the problem is it wasn’t fully explored. And there was also a scene that was cut with Minny, where Minny is being beaten by her husband Leroy. Beaten. First of all I had a problem with Minny having a phone, can I just tell you, phones are expensive, we never had a phone, Minny had a phone! But she gets beaten by Leroy, and she calls Aibileen and she is beat and bloodied, her kids are around her, they don’t have any shoes on because you could tell they just ran from the house. First of all I know that scene, because I grew up in domestic violence, and Octavia did it beautifully, so she’s running to the gas station, she calls Aibileen she says, “I can’t take it anymore, he can’t beat me no more”, and her kids are around her they’re clutching her and they’re [crying noise], and I said, “Minny just don’t go back, don’t go back just come here, come here”, she’s like, “Aibileen, Aibileen”. It’s one of those scenes. And it was cut because it was too depressing. That’s the issue I have with a lot of our stories. By the time you see the truth with starts here, and then it makes it to the screen, the truth is so filtered down, and then it’s given to you to make you feel very comfortable.

[Applause]

It’s not our job to make you feel comfortable, it really isn’t. If you feel comfortable, then that is your journey to, and your cross to bear. That is the beauty of art, the beauty of art is that we throw it to you, you receive it, and if you shift in some way we’ve done our job."

She's right.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentersam

@Sam thank you, I was like did anyone actually read it. She’s allowed to have regrets, she’s only human.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

@Nikki I think something a lot of people refuse to get is that while she got a lot of attention after Doubt, like she said, those roles were more of the same. She knew The Help could be big and, being a black women - a dark-skinned black woman, at that - she wasn't getting other, better offers. So it was a case of problematic movie that could get her those other, better offers or more of the same that would get her just more of the same until she stopped getting offers altogether. She's very upfront about having always had reservations about that movie, right from the beginning.

And she made a lot of really good points about how the pov of that film was shaped by the preoccupation with white people's comfort. I especially liked her comments about how the women would have been angry (and really weren't allowed to be) and how they would have taken the money.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentersam

The movie wraps white supremacy up in a chick flick sheen; how could it be anything but problematic? She has always expressed reservations about taking the role, so her regret isn't really a revelation.

The reactions to this interview are so predictably racist (how dare she get all uppity and not be grateful for a movie that, well, helped put her on the map?). Just like the film, white people's delusional nostalgia for the so-called "good old days" is always more important than the oppressive, hateful system that these Black women and their families live under.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

It’s a shame they couldn’t give Cicely a nod for her heartbreaking Cameo in the help, ala Ruby Dee in American Gangster.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSherylee

Many times when I have been discouraged, I imagine Viola Davis’ face in front of me, telling me I am kind, I am smart, I am important. I take a breath and think, yes, I am that way, and get on with it, trying to be kind and smart and recognizing it is important.

I believe it because I see the truth coming from Viola. All the rest of that movie has fallen away.

So thank you, Viola. We see you and are grateful for the encouragement you have given us.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGrateful listener

The Help is indeed very problematic from the get-go but Viola Davis gave it everything she had, and lent the movie more than a bit of grace, emerging as a very bright star. She's the best.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I think she's expressing a pretty rational thought - setting movies in that place in that era, it's either a tough sell (which we don't see), or not realistic enough (which we do see). Regardless, she's wonderful in the movie. Octavia is wondering in the movie. I'm totally cool with her comments.

I'm excited for Widows. I hope this means she will continue to work with great directors on interesting (and fun!) projects.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

How many of us don't have regrets about professional choices and/or experiences we had seven or eight years ago? It's perfectly understandable, and advisable, to assess the past in order to learn from it and do better in the future. Having said that, Davis still gave a gem of a performance which brought dignity to a role that could have a disaster otherwise.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

There were plenty of us who called out this film for its white savior nonsense back then. That takes nothing away from the quality of acting in the film or why women of color who are all too often left on the sidelines signed on to star and populate a big budget Hollywood film that would give them work. It’s possible to provide thoughtful critique, as Viola Davis did here, and still see the positive in a film.

Further, there’s all kinds of reasons why someone would not speak out against a film they were involved in upon release: fear of being labeled difficult, marketing people making expectations on the press junket very clear, courting votes for awards, literal language in a contract about not disparaging the film. Real world example of the worst that can happen: Katherine Heigl. She went from winning an Emmy in her breakout leading role, to criticizing the quality of writing on her show, to having intentionally awful storylines thrown at her to make her experience miserable, to struggling for years to find meaningful work and recognition again. That happened to a conventional, young, white leading lady. What do you think would happen to an older woman of color for calling out something problematic in the writing of a Hollywood project while working on it?

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Davis made her feelings about The Help known in a conversation with Oprah and other prominent Black actresses sharing their experiences in the business. The movie fails the Black perspective. I blame Tate Taylor for a lack of sensitivity on how little the voices were of the Black characters.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I find these quotes fascinating because I think Viola undersells her own work. For me the ONLY thing that endured about the movie was the maid's voices, thanks to her transcendent work.

September 13, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel—agreed. I also think it's noteworthy that Davis ran a very strong Best Actress campaign for a role that many studios would have categorized as supporting. Those characters were much more resonant in reality than they were on paper.

September 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

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