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Viola Davis On Her Role In "The Help": "Of Course I Had Trepidations" + More...

by Tambay A. Obenson
July 9, 2011 2:19 AM
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"Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multifaceted and rich roles you've ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not take the role because you feel like in some ways it's not a good message to send to Black people? No. The message is the quality of the work. That is the greater message... As Black women, we're always given these seemingly devastating experiences - experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as Black women is take the worst situations and create from that point."

Words from Viola Davis in the August issue of Essence magazine, talking about her involvement in the sure-to-be polarizing film The Help. I think this might be the first time I've actually read anything from her about the film and the role she plays. I'm sure there'll be more quotes from her and the rest of the cast, as they begin their press travels for the film which opens in theaters a month from now. I'm hoping to see it early and chat with Viola myself.

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  • Trenisha Fabre | July 20, 2011 8:38 AMReply

    Yawn! I will not be seeing this movie. And before anyone tells me that we need to remember and know our history. Well, I do because I grew up in the Deep South. Why does the the mainstream want to constantly remind us where we were and how far we've come with this same stuff over and over again. I'll Fly Away, a series in the 90s about another black maid, starring Regina Tayor, was higly acclaimed. Like Taylor, Viola Davis is an extraordinary actress but don't they and we deserve more? What about mainstream treatment on Dr. Mae Jemison or Frederick Douglas or George Washington Carver? These stories have not been told in the mainstream - gee, I wonder why? Movies like THE HELP fuel the fire that we should be kept in place and remain the help and I'm not buying into that. Viola, I love you, but would love to see you in something else - not as the maid, the girlfriend, etc. GIVE US MORE!!

  • JMac | July 11, 2011 11:09 AMReply

    Can't take credit for mentioning that show. I read someone mention it here before, maybe on another thread.

    You should type up a script and corner an NBA player. LOL.

  • BluTopaz | July 11, 2011 5:33 AMReply

    @JMac, yeah the stories. Grandma Gertrude was also very fair skinned with blondish hair which caused another set of problems, it wasn't just the darker ladies who were regarded as lowly servants as these movies would have you believe. She did day work for a while before she was able to begin her dream career as a teacher, but these experiences made her even more of a 'race woman' than she was previously. She taught me how to fold dinner napkins for a formal party, and also was the first to tell me 'I wouldn't trust a white person (not her actual word, i'm being pc) as far as i could throw one'. And on the surface she was always sweet as pie, a true Southern lady.

    I remember Regina King's performance in a few episodes of I'll Fly Away, and how quietly dignified she always was-never passive, which is such a hard thing to do in a role. That was actually a good character to depict that time period, thx for remembering that.

  • BluTopaz | July 11, 2011 5:12 AMReply

    @CareyCarey--thanks for posting that, I am not familiar with this author or her Blanche White series.

  • JMac | July 11, 2011 4:54 AMReply

    A mystery solving housekeeper - now that sounds more like my speed. I always wondered why we don't see Murder She Wrote/Miss Marple/Hetty Wainthrop type of shows with black women. I know Cosby did his thing but black women are sooo good at snooping and putting 2 and 2 together, lol. Gonna find those books.

    To tie this in with Sparkle, I would be more interested in a story about a black maid written by a black woman where the focus is on the maid's involvement and interaction with her own family. What does this have to do with Sparkle? Mary Alice's character and the scene where she's confronted about how much she cares about her white employer's children but how little she cares about her own. You could make a movie out of that alone and take it in different directions. Now that's complex.

    Blu - a graduate of Spelman and a housekeeper for people less educated than her? That's another good story right there. But nobody [white] wants to see that. They prefer the oh this lowly black chick is part of our family but don't let her drink from one of our glasses without soaking it in bleach afterwards type of story. Possible exception besides I'll Fly Away is Corrina, Corrina but I don't know how many people saw that movie.

  • Dankwa Brooks | July 11, 2011 4:24 AMReply

    While I deplore the "Magic Negro" movies ( )
    I agree with Yolanda Lewis
    "I for one am not offended by this movie or book. These type of things happened and we as Black people need to stop pretending this type of thing isn’t in our history."

    I REFUSED to go see 'Tropic Thunder' (where Robert Downey Jr. played a white man) because he was basically in black face. I waited to hear and read about the uproar...there was none that I saw or read. Late, late in the summer I decided to go see it and I was not offended at all and LMAO at the whole movie.

    On paper I dismissed 'The Help' as another Magic Negro movie, but when I saw the trailer I have to say it looked interesting. I think Viola Davis is a fantastic actor and SHE is really the only reason I would want to see a film like this. I might give it a try in theaters and if not definitely on DVD. 'Tropic Thunder' taught me to not pre-judge something (or condemn it) before I see it.

  • CareyCarey | July 11, 2011 3:33 AMReply

    @ Blu, whatsup,

    Hey, after reading the following, something popped in my head.

    "if I wanted to see a movie about Black maids the story would be written by one"

    My wife was a ferocious reader who read every genre. She could read 24/7 and let the world go by. After reading your comment I instantly thought of a fictional “maid” character named Blanche White, by Barbara Neely. My wife read much faster than me and as I said, subject matter or the race of the author was not a deal breaker, although she preferred African American authors. So one day I decided to read one of “her” books (our taste was slightly different). Blanche Among the Talented Tenth was my choice (from the Blanche White series) for that day . It was a light enjoyable read. Check out the following...

    The Blanche White Mysteries by Barbara Neely

    Blanche White lends a refreshing African-American, female twist to the mystery tradition, as she turns from domestic worker to insightful--if reluctant--sleuth. A middle-aged housekeeper with a strong sense of humor, Blanche becomes an unlikely yet ingenious sleuth when murder disrupts the wealthy household of her employers.

    "Barbara Neely has, while writing a mystery novel about Blanche White, also written about race and class in America from the perspective of a character whose voice is rarely heard in fiction: an intelligent, perceptive, poor working-class black woman with a wry sense of humor and a healthy sense of place"
    —Linda Ellerbee

    "How refreshing to read a story told from the no-holds-barred perspective of a contemporary black working woman. Blanche not only solves crimes, but with insight and humor portrays self-loving strategies for meeting the everyday challenges that some many sisters face."
    —Barbara Smith

  • Orville | July 11, 2011 2:38 AMReply

    The Help looks like another classic white saviour movie. I am so sick of these racist films Hollywood continues to promote. Shame on Viola Davis for agreeing to accept such a degrading role!

  • Orville | July 11, 2011 2:34 AMReply

    Unfortunately, Viola has been categorized into the asexual mystical black mammy role. It is so sad that Viola took this part. I get the fact that Viola probably didn't have bigger options BUT still I wish she didn't take the part. This movie is all about white guilt and white privilege. This movie The Help promotes all the racist and sexist stereotypes against black female agency. The subliminal racist message is black women NEEDED white women to help them get justice during the Civil Rights era.

    People can say this is just a movie BUT it isn't.The Help is a symptom of a bigger problem for black women and that is the paucity of GOOD film roles!

    I know people probably won't agree with me but I think it is so sad that THIS is the best role Viola Davis has gotten since Doubt. Yes, people can say that Viola has to pay her bills BUT it still seems to me Hollywood has a total lack of regard for black women. The lead in The Help is the young white actress Emma Stone NOT Viola Davis. I know The Help is based on a novel, I also know the author is a young white woman.

  • Miles Ellison | July 11, 2011 2:19 AMReply

    The issue isn't whether being a maid is a good or bad job. It isn't even whether playing a maid in a movie is a good or bad thing.

    Sure, white women play maids. But Hazel and Alice from the Brady Bunch weren't roles that were designed to marginalize and belittle. That has usually been the exact intent when black women are cast in these roles. That is the issue.

    I question how many people who have read this book or will watch this movie will be enlightened by the dimensions of Davis' potentially multifaceted performance. More likely, they will feel better for not being the jackasses that the white employers in the book and movie are. Or they will feel better for understanding the plight of a 1960's black maid in Mississippi.

  • BluTopaz | July 11, 2011 1:32 AMReply

    and ITA with Orville--- bet this flick will center around the protagonist being all progressive for a Southern White woman, by letting her maids eat sitting down every once in a while. That pic of Viola cradling that brat makes is cringeworthy, especially after seeing how GORGEOUS she is on the next Essence mag cover. She doesn't even look like the same person here.

    Yes many of our relatives did it, my grandmother was a housekeeper who was instructed to enter/exit through the back door on her first day. And this was the summer when she graduated from Spelman college, she was more educated than the ignorant trash she was hired to clean up after. Wonder if The Help will have a storyline that reflects anything similar to that.

  • BluTopaz | July 11, 2011 1:22 AMReply

    @ Yolanda Lewis

    "These type of things happened and we as Black people need to stop pretending this type of thing isn’t in our history."

    How about some of us Black people aren't stupid, and don't want to support a project that has been exploitative from the beginning?

    And even if this "writer" did not use her family's former employee's story to her own advantage--if I wanted to see a movie about Black maids the story would be written by one. What could a White person possibly tell me about the inner turmoil of her Black housekeepers? Do you think many Jewish people would be all excited to read about the plight of their people written by a German?

    why are some Black people so frackin' gullible...

  • eshowoman, the cranky film scholar | July 11, 2011 1:20 AMReply

    I have never seen a complex,meaty multifaceted Mammy role and as a black film scholar, I have seen a butt-load of them. The closest the media has come to one was Regina Taylor in the PBA show I'll Fly Away. Black women did not work as maid because they loved whit people, they did it to feed their families!!!! Until I see that in a film or a TV show I will avoid all great white savior movies.I have seen the glorious Ms. Davis as a maid in Far From Heaven, I do not want to see it again!

  • DONISE STEVENS | July 11, 2011 1:13 AMReply

    Why must being a servant be considered a bad job?It is a noble role for a white actor, but if the actor is black it is lacking dignity? Hazel had her own show, but A black maid is a Mammy and unloved by her own?
    You people sound like a bunch of snotty children for the most part.
    I have to keep reminding myself that most of the posters on this site are not actors,directors or producers and the opinions are more observation and assumption than anything.
    I hope my comment gets you to thinking about your own willingness to speak on thing you obviously have not thought through. I am black, I have played several maids in several theater genres and was aware of what each and every role brought to the fabric of the piece. I am a nurse, and people often say,"Oh it is so wonderful what you do", but in actuality, nurses originally were considered much lowlier than a maid. In fact, a nurse was often the prostitute you gave a little money and a half pint to to watch your grandma while you went out for a little while. If you realize the fallacy of attributing negative attributes to a profession, this entire conversation is moot . Ah, the self importance of youth! I guess I'd rather find you here than see you on the news. : )

  • Yolanda Lewis | July 10, 2011 12:26 PMReply

    The role of Abileen is a meaty one, and Viola and the rest of the cast are going to bring it. I for one am not offended by this movie or book. These type of things happened and we as Black people need to stop pretending this type of thing isn't in our history.

  • CareyCarey | July 10, 2011 9:49 AMReply

    Sonofbaldwin, tell us something we don't know. A few days ago I told Lynn that I was a white guy.

    But in my defense, I have to say that Sergio is my mentor. Did you listen to the last podcast he was on? Well, him and Monique got in a litle dust up. MOnique got a liitle pissed and Sergio tried to apologize because he said he loves getting people angry and pissed at him on the "board" but not his peers. Sergio could care less if "who-shot-John" or Harry Bo Scary agrees with him or not, he is going to say what his heart tells him to say, and let the chips fall were they way. And I like that in him.

    Many agree with Sergio on many occasions, but unfortunately, negative voices and those that are afraid to step across the scratchline, rule the roost of most discussion boards and comment sections.

    Sonofbaldwin, although my words sometimes piss some folks straight the fk off, I don't believe much good is accomplished by everyone sucking each others ass with polite and overly agreeable conversation. Hell, think about it. When two sides have differing opinions (viewpoints/agendas) like in political debates or courtroom proceeding, it's not about being nice nor disagreeing in a politically polite way. Resolutions come by way of confusion, pointed disagreement and the lack of fear.

    Let me say this one more time. Well, I didn't say it but...

    Man fears nothing more terrible than to take a position that stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinions. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that is agrees to everything and so favorable the it agrees with everyone.

    So Son, it's my belief that when a man gets past that hurdle, he's on to something.

  • sonofbaldwin | July 10, 2011 8:05 AMReply

    I'm convinced that CareyCarey is a white man playing the role of someone black--sent here to cause confusion and to get us to capitulate to white supremacist and black stereotypes.

  • misha | July 10, 2011 7:29 AMReply

    @CareyCarey, you are something else. LOL For the record, my opinion of Monique's Mary remains the same. :D

  • Tessa | July 10, 2011 5:35 AMReply

    Well I for one am excited about the movie. I have the book and will start reading it shortly. I know some are tired of seeing these 'white savior' movies as someone referenced...but you cant change happened. I for one have a close relative who was one of these 'maids' and Im glad that someone has come along and put light on these Black women in the past who took care of these white kids but couldnt polish the silver. And as for Viola being better than a role...umm its called acting and believing in her craft and of course being paid...which thousands of folks who out of a job..wished they had.

  • CareyCarey | July 10, 2011 3:05 AMReply

    Lookie here, 2 of my favorite young opinioned (not a bad thang) sistahs (Lynn and Misha) are voicing their opinions on this one, so let me jump right in. :-)

    But first, I believe “A” has capture my sentiments when he/she? said: “Yes, Lynn, a “mammy” role can actually be a quality role if there is something deeper underneath the surface beyond just being a servant to the white folk. She said herself that it is one of the most “multifaceted” and “rich” roles she’s ever been given. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t judge the occupation of the character she is playing. That’s simply what she’s saying. If you just take a glimpse at this film, it will look like a mammy role”

    Yes sir, young folks frequently run their mouth about thangs they no little or nothing about. *smirk*

    Now it’s known that birds of a feather flock together but Misha parted ways from Lynn when she said.... “Doesn’t matter to me whether Viola is playing a maid or the first lady…as along as it is indeed a multifaceted and rich role”

    See, I enjoyed hearing that from Misha after hearing her say Monique’s role in Precious WAS NOT multifaceted. I mean, misha may be young but she’s growing. *smile & smirk II*

    But check this, I paused when I read Tessa’s following... “I for one have a close relative who was one of these ‘maids’ and Im glad that someone has come along and put light on these Black women in the past who took care of these white kids but couldn’t polish the silver”

    Well, I paused and laughed at “these black women” and “close relative” because I also have a “close friend” that was a maid in the 50’s & 60’s. Maybe close friend does not tell the whole story, she’s actually my mother and she’s still living. So again, I am going to talk about something I know. And yawl don‘t know nothing about my momma *lol and smirk III*

    All kidding aside, my mother was a maid and her mother was too, so I guess I have to agree with many on this one. Will the role be multifaceted? Viola Davis said it is, so hey, she knows better than I. Is it a “white savior” film? Nawl, it does not appear to be. Did Viola Davis take the role because she has to eat? Come on, that’s a ridiculous question/suggestion. Is “Help” a white guilt movie? Well, first, I never understood the meaning behind those words (white guilt). I mean, come on, an author sits down and writes a book that she intends to use as a form Catharsis, purging and purifying her soul of "crimes" committed by her ancestors??? That makes little sense to me.

    But in the end, will I rush out to see this movie? NOPE!

  • Miles Ellison | July 9, 2011 11:47 AMReply

    Why is it that these rich, multifaceted roles are contained within the constraints of hoary racial stereotypes? It's 2011. Talented black actors and actresses should not have to squander their gifts trying to infuse dignity where there is none.

  • Tovah | July 9, 2011 11:38 AMReply

    "what do you do as an actor if one of the most multifaceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi?"

    Hire a new agent?

    I'm sure she'll make brilliant lemonade with her multifaceted lemon of a role, but methinks I'll pass on this one. White guilt movies are not really my thing.

  • Laura | July 9, 2011 11:06 AMReply

    @ misha

    yes to that

  • Lynn | July 9, 2011 11:01 AMReply

    @ A

    I read most of the novel the film looks much worst. Oh and "The Help" doesn't shed light on poor working class African-Americans who play the role as the "mammy" . From what I gathered the film is just another typical "white savior" film that Hollywood loves to create.

  • misha | July 9, 2011 7:41 AMReply

    I get what Viola is saying and I agree to an extent. I'm not one who contends that black actors should be most concerned with portraying "positive" images of blackness. But rather, said actors should embrace roles that depict black folk as the complex people we are. Doesn't matter to me whether Viola is playing a maid or the first along as it is indeed a multifaceted and rich role.

    Having said that, I have little faith that "The Help" will offer anything that we haven't already seen a million times before. Wake me when Hollywood provides a more diverse selection of roles for black women.

  • A | July 9, 2011 4:18 AMReply

    Yes, Lynn, a "mammy" role can actually be a quality role if there is something deeper underneath the surface beyond just being a servant to the white folk. She said herself that it is one of the most "multifaceted" and "rich" roles she's ever been given. If you haven't seen the film, don't judge the occupation of the character she is playing. That's simply what she's saying. If you just take a glimpse at this film, it will look like a mammy role. In actuality, she's a maid with some dignity. She's not going to be smiling and bending over backwards for her precious white masters the entire film...I can tell you that. LOL

  • Lynn | July 9, 2011 3:57 AMReply

    "The message is the quality of the work. That is the greater message… As Black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences - experiences that could absolutely break us."

    Huh?? I mean I absolutely adore Viola Davis to me she is a phenomenal actress who deserves the recognition and the praise that she has been waiting for in Hollywood. But what point is she trying to make here saying that "the message is the quality of work". I'm sorry but "mammy" roles are "quality" roles?? I am very confused I know for a fact that Hollywood does NOT care about no Black woman playing some "mammy". I understand Viola Davis is defending this film because her name is attached to it but I thought she was honestly better than this! But every actor has to eat right?

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