Since her breakthrough in Hollywood thanks for her brief but critically acclaimed appearance in the 2008 film Doubt, Viola Davis has built a reputation for being one of the greatest actresses of our generation. But even as an industry heavyweights have their career regrets — The Help is Davis’s.
The 2011 period drama, which also starred Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Jessica Chastain, followed a racially segregated Mississippi town during the Civil Rights Movement. Davis played the role of working class woman Aibileen Clark who splits her time between caring for her own family and being a maid for a rich socialite, when her humdrum life is interrupted by the despite of an eager young journalist who wants to share her story with the world.
The Help was praised by the mainstream media, but for many Black critics and fans alike, its feel-good ending romanticised the terrors of the 1960s for Black people. Women like Davis’s character weren’t thriving or even seeing the glass half full in the abusive and racist environment of the time — they were being discriminated against every single day. Years later, Davis recognises that, despite its good intentions, the film was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”
“Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity,” explained Davis to Vanity Fair. “They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but…it’s catering to the white audience. The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. Then they leave the movie theatre and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were.”
“There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help,” she continued. “But there’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth].”
Davis can’t deny the success that came from the movie or the relationships she built on set — “I cannot tell you the love I have for these women, and the love they have for me,” she made sure to say of her cast-mates — but it was a problematic project nonetheless. And in her never-ending quest to make Hollywood more equitable for Black women in every way, the actress is hoping that the Black actresses to come will take a page out of her playbook and avoid any projects like it in the future.
“There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known,” mused Davis. “To pop her! Fabulous white actresses [have had] a wonderful role for each stage of their lives, that brought them to the stage they are now. We can’t say that for many actors of colour.”
Though Hollywood as we know it now is likely at its most diverse, the path to success is still quite narrow for Black actresses, specifically those of a darker complexion like Davis. Despite that fact, she asserted, it’s important for Black women to make sure that they stick to their guns and stay away from roles that tear down their communities — even if it costs them.
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