Viola Davis Rejects The Burden Of Representation: "At The End Of The Day, I'm Am Just An Actor"

by Tambay A. Obenson
July 24, 2011 11:15 AM
20 Comments
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Her response here touches on so much that we've tackled on this site - particularly, as the title of this post states, this burden of representation that some of us feel black actors should carry. The question of "obligation."

We've argued the matter quite intensely on Shadow And Act, as long time readers will know, but never really reaching a consensus; not that we have to. It's an issue that's long been debated before all of us (including old man Sergio) were born, and I'm sure it'll continue to be just as polarizing.

Lee Bailey at eurweb caught up with Viola Davis, who's currently doing press for the upcoming film, The Help, and I think this is as emphatic a response she's given thus far (note, some of us have seen the film, but some of us aren't allowed to talk about it just yet; kinda like Fight Club):

Viola Davis on her decision to play a maid in The Help by CherieNic

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20 Comments

  • blaqbird | July 26, 2011 4:39 AMReply

    I'm a fan of Viola Davis and always will be. At the end of the day, she is just an actor. She doesn't owe anyone anything and she doesn't really owe us an explanation as to why she chooses the roles that she does. She's an actor, and she wants to act. Period. If she saw something in this role that inspired her and made her want to tell this character's story, so be it. So much fighting and bickering on here, and it's annoying. I love hearing differing opinions, but it seems like we keep going in circles regarding this topic when we need to move on.

    See the movie or don't see the movie. Just stop complaining already.

  • Nemesis | July 25, 2011 9:45 AMReply

    As a strong headed, opinionated, free-spirited black woman, I've sometimes wondered how I'd have survived in a previous era. At such moments, it dawns on me that there must have always been strong headed, opinionated, free-spirited black women... How in hell did THEY survive eras in which they were seen as little more than backdrop, at best, or as chattel and/or servants to be used in whatever way their owner/employer sees fit?

    How did they get through all that shit without killing a whole slew of white folks or getting themselves killed (though this must have happened more than a couple of times)?

    Maybe it's just me, but I there's a lot of awe and wonder surrounding the survival of women of color and dignity who actually managed to get through history intact (well, physically, anyway), to the point where I can sit here being as stubborn and sassy as I wanna be and know that, while it may not make me lots of friends, black or white, I won't get lynched for it.

    So when an actress like Viola Davis takes on such a role as she does in The Help, I tend to want to look beyond the fact that she's playing a maid - after all, like she says, so many black women didn't have that many other options at that point in history. Fuck the maid, I want to see the human being behind the maid mask, the human being that white folks at the time refused to acknowledge or accord any dignity.

    Do I think that this film will sate my desire to see a fully rounded portrayal of black women in that era? Hellooo, this is a Hollywood film! Do I have gullible with a capital G written on my forehead?

    However, while this knee-jerk, reactionary, "but she's playing a MAID!" response is understandable on one level, I can't understand why it doesn't raise any discourse beyond that initial reaction. If you want to relegate your respect for Viola Davis to a lower level, that's your prerogative, but it does make me wonder what level of respect you have for the women for whom this was real, who were "just" maids at a time when it was unlikely they could become heads of major corporations. It's interesting to me that, where they had to bring dignity to their lot in life in order to not just survive, but thrive, so many black people now only want to treat it like a shame that should never be spoken of again.

    Get over yourself for a second, and think about the millions of black women who came before you and how they had to deal with their much more limited world.

  • misha | July 25, 2011 9:32 AMReply

    Hol' up...I have no beef with Viola for taking the role...I actually like her as an actress. But that doesn't mean I'm going to ignore Hollywood's obsession with magical negro/white savior films nor give Viola a pass when she says something I find suspect/disagree with. Nope.

  • CareyCarey | July 25, 2011 7:35 AMReply

    "Seriously? Are we really having this conversation? REALLY??!!!! WTF????? WHY DO YOU CARE? At the end of the day Davis IS just an actor"

    AMEN!

    Okay, I promise y'all, this is my last looong ass comment. From now on it's gonna be 4 lines or less... promise!
    But this one is quite long. To champion crabsnbarrel's sentiments, I thought. "what if the black cinematic blogspere stood down for a second"? Now, in my usual style of commenting, I have to do it like...

    The night was glare, the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down. Quantum banter relinquished it's liberally greased floors to silence. Like the toes of the Wicked Witch of The West - retentively coiled upon losing their ruby red glass slippers - the appendages of the black cinematic blogsphere relaxed it's pointed index fingers to a slightly paused position.

    While the brakes were applied to the inner drums of gossip, sport and play, and the ways of white folks, there could be time to focus on what’s right, not what’s wrong. I am left to wonder if the quasi polyglot-ism of the black blogspere is attacking racism and politics in an effect way and in the right forums? Well, I don't have a Cadillac with a sunroof top and diamond in the back, so I can't cruise the scene in my gangster lean, but I do read the musings of many.


    But wait, before I bridge the gap between the ridiculous and the sub-lime, I believe it's of utmost importance that I qualify my opinion. See, I am a black cat man. In such, I had nine lives. However, as the world turned it's turbulent winds upon me, I am now down to one. Age and bumps upside my head has forced me to exchanged my youthfully proud ignorance, for a slight semblance of wisdom. I am not a black Aristotle, nor a chocolate pupil of Socrates, who by the way, despite his foundational place in the history of ideas, actually wrote nothing, I am just a black man in America that has been places - physically and mentally - that I no longer wish to return.

    In reference to the black blogspere standing down, I have traveled many roads less-traveled. And in doing so, I've noticed a few things. Well, take for instance a misguided purse snatching thief. When he grabs his bounty with the speed of a cheetah, forcing his victim to shouts "stop thief, get back here you slime ball, you freakin' fool", those words do not to stop the thief. In fact, he speeds-up his escape. Even though the thief may not believe he's a slime ball, he know he's a thief, so calling him one is not going to stop his dastardly deeds. He has a job to do and he could care less about vengeful name calling. Especially those directed at him.

    In walks the racist and the do-or-die bigot, his color, white, black and brown. It's highly predictable, and historically true, that directing the aforementioned titles (racist, prick, bigot, whitey, nigger, etc.) is not going to stop their assaults. Racist and bigot know who they are, so they don't need me or anyone else to remind them. Why should I waste my time trying to get them to defend the indefensible?

    Viola Davis said, ““I am just an actor”, and that, imo, should be the end of the story.

    But nooooo, it can’t stop there - can it? Well, it's been my observation and experience that when a mirror is raised in front of someone that’s simply unconstitutionally incapable of admitting wrong, he might blink, but he will look at the refection with determination on his face, cock his head, and then comb his hair. With a passonate look, he will get ready for the next show.

    Consequently, I wonder what would happen if the black blogsphere took one big collective deep breathe and agreed to stand down, for a short period, on commentary concerning or related to what they believe to be the evil persona of some white people?

    The day the black cinema blogs stands down on their opinion on race matters, politics and such, and just enjoys the damn movies for their entertainment and artistic value (for a moment, please) will be a marvelous day. I believe there will be serendipitous reward from that journey.

    ~ The preacherman instigator signing off

    http://careycarey-carrymehome.blogspot.com/

  • BluTopaz | July 25, 2011 5:52 AMReply

    "UHM, I don’t know, direct your own movies, become artists, or just shut the hell up!"

    Gee I had no idea it was that easy, who knew!

    Anyway it's a drop in the ocean and indie docs are not everyone's taste, but here's info for anyone working on one and would like grassroots outreach/funding resources:

    http://www.filmsprout.org/

    And i agree with Ghost, why do we support garbage in droves but not projects that show us with depth.

  • Ghost | July 25, 2011 5:26 AMReply

    There’s a huge part of me that wonders why the knee jerk reaction, and WHY are black people dissing Davis and her co-stars for doing these roles?
    -------------------------------------------------------------

    Folks are doing it because these are the roles that seem to get acclaim and Oscar nods. Roles that are deemed demeaning/stereotypical.

    Those are the same folks that hated seeing Jamie Fox win for Ray (because he was playing a musician) and Jennifer Hudson (because she was playing a singer), Monique for playing a deadbeat/abusive mother and so on.

    However when we don't play those roles and not appear in a Tyler Perry film-the black community won't support it.

    How many films on this site-written.directed.produced by US have gotten NO SUPPORT?

    Yet put a 7 time felon and woman bbeater in a film call Takers-we run to the theater. A man dress in drag-we run to the theaters.

    A film about black boys saving their home from aliens, black father raising his son or a story about black love-we are nowhere to be found.

    And how do the people that are bashing her know that she hasn't tried out for other roles?

    Just because the casting call said "white" doesn't mean you can't try out because you are black.

    Arjay Smith, Cirroc Lofton, Lee Thompson Young, Wesley Jonathan and Zoe Solanda's famous roles were meant for white actors.

  • Zeus | July 25, 2011 5:03 AMReply

    I don't blame Viola for taking the role. She is an actor and she must act.

    My beef is with the writer and Hollywood in general.

    Hollywood scoffs at the thought of giving heavy marketing dollars and/or funding to black folks being romantic leads, action heroes (except Will) and black dramas but they have NO PROBLEM in giving HEAVY marketing pushes to films where the black actors are playing roles in a "servant" context.

    I'm not fooled.

  • crabsnbarrel | July 25, 2011 4:59 AMReply

    Seriously? Are we really having this conversation? I will not generalize and point fingers at those who have misgivings about black women playing maids in contemporary society as we are all entitled to our opinions....but REALLY??!!!! WTF????? WHY DO YOU CARE? At the end of the day Davis IS just an actor. Should black attorneys consult black america to determine which cases to take that'll somehow propel the race forward? Better yet, black doctors? Black educators? Viola Davis's choice of work should not concern you. If you want to see her movie, see it. If you don't... DON'T!

  • werthwrld | July 25, 2011 4:21 AMReply

    @ Nemesis: "Get over yourself for a second, and think about the millions of black women who came before you and how they had to deal with their much more limited world." RIGHT ON!

    There's a huge part of me that wonders why the knee jerk reaction, and WHY are black people dissing Davis and her co-stars for doing these roles? Perhaps those that protest too much have a bit of pretentious "we have overcome" self-hatred and are ashamed of the fiact that this is our history.

    Well tough, it is what it is. Black people are always too eager to tear each other down, rather than hold each other up. We complain that hollywood doesn't make movies with strong black leads. Then Tyler Perry comes along and tries to do that, and we complain about his moives. Say what you will about Davis, Perry and the like, but please choose a side and stay there. This plaintiff whining is deafening, devisive and a clear indicator that you will always complain! UHM, I don't know, direct your own movies, become artists, or just shut the hell up!

  • JMac | July 25, 2011 4:07 AMReply

    Nemesis the conversation has risen to that level on other posts about this film. I think by now people are just tired of saying the same things over and over so it's just a quick in and out - if they post at all.

    As to Viola D, my opinion of her hasn't dropped because she's doing this movie. I still think she's trying to make lemonade out of lemons. I would think a little less of her if she came out dogging this film - wouldn't be smart considering all the build up and expectations "people" have for it .

    Glad I'm not an actor. I could never kiss ass or hold my tongue about something I feel passionately against.

  • Troy | July 25, 2011 3:50 AMReply

    Hello everyone. I personally would like to hold the world accountable for almost everything they do. However, that is not a real possibility in our societies.
    Our community want athletes and rappers(majority black men) held accountable for their public perception that is skewed daily by media and other members of our community. I find it puzzling that ACTORS are not public persecuted on a regular basis as most have never represented a sincere pride for our community.
    Either we hold everyone accountable or we hold no one accountable.
    For one athletes have created more generational change in our families and communities than actors and music artists.
    They just play sports(a game as insignificant as any movie ever created)!

  • misha | July 25, 2011 3:15 AMReply

    @eshowoman, Agreed. Viola is a intelligent woman so surely she understands why no one challenges or questions the roles taken by the likes of Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster. If movies like The Help hadn't already been done a million times before and there was truly a diverse selection of roles for black actresses, no one would be questioning why Viola is playing a maid. Unfair to her? Perhaps. But save the "I am just an actor" speeches, please...especially since she contradicts herself in the process. On one hand, she talks about the importance of "humanizing the black woman" but on the other hand, she says she's "just an actor." Yeah, she's feeling some pressure, indeed.

  • Anwar | July 25, 2011 2:43 AMReply

    Why doesn't she just not take ANY parts, still call herself an actor, and then sit and act as every role offered to her is beneath her? That's what it seems like some people want her to do.

    Actors act. That's all they do. Nothing more.

  • eshowoman, the cranky film fan | July 25, 2011 1:54 AMReply

    She must be feeling some pressure to come out with the "I am just an actor" speech. My respect for her just dropped a few points.

  • Mecca | July 25, 2011 1:33 AMReply

    "you gotta get by we are all survivors of nature at all costs but i think ultimately, she would be defined as a liberated
    woman this is all we were back then.
    And every once in a while, someone would break the norm but you were maids you were in subservient roles um a lot of us didn't vote and yet, she was able to break out of all that to pursue a goal and a dream to speak out that is liberated"

    I still don't like "The Help" but Viola Davis doesn't owe her own any explanation regarding her choice to play a role as a maid in contemporary cinema.

  • JMac | July 24, 2011 12:43 PMReply

    Great article - on the Loop.

  • CareyCarey | July 24, 2011 11:53 AMReply

    "wary of my own people. If you can support trash but be hostile towards truth and enlightenment, no wonder we at the end of the day, will be left behind"

    That's the voice I've been looking for!

    Thank you Sara, the truth hurts, but it needs to be said.

  • Gigi Young | July 24, 2011 11:50 AMReply

    If you can support trash but be hostile towards truth and enlightenment, no wonder we at the end of the day, will be left behind.

    You lost me when you conflated "The Help" with "truth and enlightenment."

  • Melissa | July 24, 2011 11:40 AMReply

    For everyone wondering why people have such a problem with this movie, I suggest reading this article that I just saw posted on Twitter:

    http://theloop21.com/society/i-dont-need-the-help-kathryn-stockett

    That is the issue it in a nutshell.

  • Sara | July 24, 2011 11:24 AMReply

    This film is a 100x better than the hot mess that was Madea's Big Happy Family & Jumping the Broom. Honestly, the only thing this controversy has done is make me wary of my own people. If you can support trash but be hostile towards truth and enlightenment, no wonder we at the end of the day, will be left behind.

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