In a recent interview accompanying her cover photo shoot for Vanity Fair, Viola Davis elaborated on why she feels like she “betrayed herself” by starring in The Help.
The 2011 film, based on the novel of the same title by Kathryn Stockett, has recently became the most viewed film on Netflix. It follows the story of African American maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ‘60s. The story focuses on two maids, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), and how an aspiring young, white journalist (Emma Stone) decides to write a book from their point of view to expose the racism they face in their everyday lives.
Davis’ latest expression of regret comes after a previous interview, in 2018, where she said, “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.” Despite ample praise for white director Tate Taylor and the cast and crew, with whom Viola Davis had a great experience and formed lifelong friendships, she still felt that the voices of the Black people in the story were not truly heard.
The film itself received mostly positive feedback. However, it was criticized by some about its use of Hollywood tropes such as the White Saviour, as well as a general ‘watering-down’ of an issue that is such a vital part of Black History. According to Ida E. Jones, the national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, it “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.”
“The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. […] They’re not moved by who we were,” Davis explained. Her cover story interview, coming only a month after the Black Lives Matter protests caused by the death of George Floyd, focused heavily on voice and what it means for Davis to express her voice. “I did not exert my voice because I did not feel worthy of having a voice,” she says about her youth. Therefore, it is understandable why she feels so strongly about a film that is supposed to be “invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but… it’s catering to the white audience.”
Davis took Aibileen’s role as a way to raise her profile as an actor and while it did get her an Oscar nomination, it caused her lasting regret to act “in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth].”
Words by Regina Toth