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In Defense of The Help, Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer: An Open Conversation With Black Artists On Black Hollywood

February 26, 2012  |  7:11pm
In Defense of <i>The Help</i>, Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer: An Open Conversation With Black Artists On Black Hollywood

“The goal of the Black artist is not to make pretty. If you look at the body of work
produced by white artists & consumed by the mainstream, you see everything from
superheroes and elves to housewives and activists, pedophiles and ax murderers,
artists and homeless individuals, domestics & doctors, rich folk, poor folk—you name it;
they have it. That is the goal. To see all the ugly, and the pretty, all the shame and the
triumph—the truth.”
—Nina Domingue Glover, actress

After years of proclaiming herself to be the biggest Kate Winslet fan around, a dear
friend of mine recently confessed that she had never seen The Reader, the film
for which Winslet received her first Academy Award. And it was this very fact that my
friend found disturbing—the Oscar win had actually made her less inclined to watch the
film. Why, she wondered aloud, had the brilliant and beloved Kate Winslet received an
actor’s highest honor for playing an illiterate, Nazi pedophile? Confused for a moment,
I could not respond. I had seen the film—even owned a copy—but had no recollection
of Winslet playing any of those things. Hadn’t she portrayed a highly intelligent and
beautifully complex lover in a story about passion, suffering and the poetry (in literature
and in life) that carries us through? Winslet’s performance rendered the character of
Hanna Schmitz transcendent; my friend’s reductive labels could never begin to define
the woman on screen. Complexity made the character real. And that is why Winslet
deserved the Oscar.

Among many other things, an Academy Award can say that an actor (like Winslet) has
played a character so well that the audience can see certain monstrosities in plain view
and still choose to love or respect that character. Perhaps we’re still obsessed with
the Greek tragedies, for we seem to love the monster in man, and we love to see man
wrestle with that monster. We seek in movies an overabundance of glory and suffering.
Some actors are the vehicles by which that glory and suffering is delivered, and some of
those actors are acknowledged with an Academy Award.

Mo’Nique delivered with one monstrosity of a mother in Precious, and she
received the 2009 Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Charlize Theron
portrayed a prostitute, a lover, and one of America’s first female serial killers, Aileen

Wuornos, in the film aptly titled, Monster. She received the 2003 Oscar for
Best Actress in a Leading Role. We all remember Anthony Hopkins in Silence of
the Lambs
as Hannibal [the Cannibal] Lecter. Horror films had long been ignored
by the Academy, but he took home the 1991 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Usually the Oscar goes to the actor whose performance will haunt us long after the
credits roll; like Natalie Portman in Black Swan, recipient of the 2010 Oscar for
Best Actress in a Leading Role or Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of
Scotland
, recipient of the 2006 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Otherwise,
it goes to the actor who vanished into the role. Comedian Jamie Foxx disappeared
and became Ray, earning the 2004 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and
Denzel Washington (who many of us still see as our beloved Malcolm X or Hurricane
Carter) transformed into Alonzo Harris for Training Day, winning for Best Actor in
a Leading Role in 2001.

The actors in these films have either borne an uncanny resemblance to true-life
people or have given us an unforgettable, fictional character who bore an uncanny
resemblance to a complete—or beautifully incomplete—human being. And I
mean “uncanny” in every sense of that word, for a great performance (and a great
film) should, at some point or another, leave one feeling exquisitely, but helplessly,
uncomfortable. In the presence of the art, we are both at home and a stranger in that
home. It is how we are moved.

While many of us in America and in so-called Black America might agree with this
reasoning, a schism begins to form when that aforementioned discomfort is brought
on by certain depictions of race relations, as was the case with last year’s The
Help
, now nominated for four Academy Awards. Even with a film like Lee Daniels’
Precious (less about race relations and more concerned with an individual story), race remains a major issue because we (in black Hollywood and in black America) are
eternally and sometimes necessarily concerned with that notion of gaze.
However, with recent attacks on the film—some specifically aimed at its black stars,
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer—I wonder if we might, for a moment, lay to rest the
very complicated question of how we look to white America.

“History is history no matter how much some things are swept under a rug.” —Darrio’
Pope, rap artist & visual artist

Like many others, I had resolved to dislike The Help long before I actually saw it.
When I finally decided to watch it, I mentally prepared myself for all sorts of Mammies,
Magical Negroes and Sambos. To my great surprise, they never really appeared.

So I was a bit shocked to see black political commentator Tavis Smiley, in a recent
interview with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, comparing their nominations to the
Academy Awards given to Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball and Denzel Washington
in Training Day.

“I believe there is a gross misunderstanding of how these awards are determined.
Denzel and Halle did not win Oscars for Best Actor/Actress of All Time. They were
nominated and judged against the other Oscar-eligible performances of that year, and
that year only.” —David Johnson, producer

Many (including me, at one point) saw these awards as an insult to the actors’ careers
and to black actors everywhere. In a world where “strong, black woman” is probably the
most redundant, overused phrase, many of us felt that Halle Berry had embarrassed us
publicly. And Denzel Washington had sold out. Because in black Hollywood, no role is
just a role and no film just a film.

“We, as the black audience, will not always agree with the choices of the black actor,
but they owe us, the black community, nothing! The actor owes
the audience a worthwhile performance.”
—Michelle Cherubin, Actress & Vocalist

According to Tavis Smiley (and me, a few years ago), the black artist does owe
something to his or her people. But is that fair? Is that art? And what, specifically, does
Halle Berry’s performance have to do with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer? If Tavis
Smiley aligned them simply due to their gender and race, hasn’t he done to them the
very thing we fight against? Why is it considered permissible (admirable, even) for him
to lump them together? He speaks as if any black female role that does not make us
completely proud and utterly comfortable in our African-American past and present
needs be written off as un-heroic. Furthermore, he assumes that every role played by a
black actress must be heroic. This attitude, especially, seems unfair.

“Who decides what is the positive (or noble) image of blackness? And for what
purpose? And for whom does it truly benefit?” —Rickey Laurentiis, poet

Still, it feels strange to “defend” a film that made me angry and uncomfortable (and not
always “exquisitely” so). I, too, was ambivalent watching a black maid give her love to
a little white girl who would most likely grow up to loathe the very sight of her skin. I did
not want to see—and I did not want white America to see—that some of us had the
strength (or weakness, or passion, or humanity or ignorance) to love the children of a
people who had no regard for our own children. Even harder than trying to explain my

own feelings about a particular scene or image, though, is trying to imagine the feelings
of a white person watching the film. I did ask myself what writer and critic Touré asked
the public in his article, “Is The Help The Most Loathsome Movie In America?”
Did the movie—and its depictions of what Touré rightly called American Apartheid—
make white people feel kind of good? Did they enjoy seeing us with seemingly so little
agency, and do they still see us as such?

“If The Help was truly from the maids’ point of view, I don’t think the reaction
would be quite as strong. The story was told from the white female protagonist’s point
of view. This made it no different than other mainstream movies about a young white
girl who, after college, is trying to start her career and is also dealing with dating and
relationships.” —Khadija Diakite, graduate film student

“Although I really enjoyed the performance, I did not ‘feel’ anything about
the characters or the movie until I saw the two brilliantly talented women defend their
reason for portraying the characters.”
—Corene Johnson, actress

The Help was certainly not without flaws, but unlike Touré, I soon became
disinterested in the question of gaze and interpretation, and also less interested in my
own defense of and concern for the film itself. Instead, I became much more interested
in defending two women who have really already mounted formidable defenses of their
own.

Octavia Spencer has happily stated that she had no qualms about taking on the role
of Minnie Jackson. In interviews with Smiley and with Oprah, she was as forthright and
passionate as her character, explaining that there was nothing ignoble about either
being a black maid from the ’60s or playing a black maid from the ’60s. She excitedly
added that, as far as ignoble characters were concerned (serial killers and such), she
could not wait to play one.

Viola Davis, on the other hand, said that she suffered through many a sleepless night
over her decision to take the role. She knew “this” would happen (the controversy and
the need for her to prepare a defense). She pointed to the fact that Tavis Smiley’s
mentality (and that of others like him) was utterly destructive to the black artist. How
can she or any other black actor perform and execute well enough if she also has to
carry the image of the race on her shoulders? And why should she have to? (I stress
the feminine pronoun here because this is really more of an issue with black female
actresses.)

Touré did, however, manage to redeem himself at the close of his article with an appeal
to the Academy, on Davis’ behalf. He writes the following: “A vote for Streep is a vote
for the status quo. A vote for Davis is a vote for a changed future. Wouldn’t that be
something, if Davis played a maid and ended up changing the world—of Hollywood?”

And why not, when in Oscar-winning films, the two most common occupations for
women are actresses (15%) and prostitutes (12%)? Why not a maid? And why would an
Oscar win even be necessary? Can this nomination itself (and the many other awards
won by these actresses) be enough to help change perceptions of art and performance
for everyone, and especially for the black artist?

My boy, Treelore, always said we gonna have a writer in the family one day.
I guess it’s gonna be me. —Final lines from The Help, spoken by Davis, as
Aibileen Clark

Still ambivalent (especially after the whole actress/prostitute/maid thing)? Me too.
Thankfully, Octavia Spencer has some great advice for ambivalent black actors, artists,
filmmakers, producers, film reviewers and anyone else with an opinion about The
Help
. Stop talking, she essentially says, and do something. Write something. Make
something. It will take much more work before we begin to see that necessary balance
in roles and representation, but it is not out of our reach.

This year, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is nominated for eleven Oscars. It is, in part,
a history of filmmaking and an ode to cinema. Great movies, it seems, inspire great
directors to create more great movies. The Help does not have to be the final
word in this story. If certain voices or perspectives are marginalized, let other artists tell
those stories. Isn’t that why we’re all here?

I wonder whether or not those voting members of the Academy take into consideration
the question of risk. I don’t here mean artistic risk so much as social and political risk.
Can they tell when an actor has accepted a role that he is, in fact, troubled to perform?
My parents were quite fond of the phrase “racial suicide.” Does the Academy care if
someone has committed such an act? Or are such emotional considerations divorced
from the bottom line: execution of the role? Behind Aibileen Clark’s eyes, I often saw
a very real, very honest fear. And perhaps we can now say that it was real. Similarly, I
saw a blaze of fury in Minnie’s eyes—and no fear of straight talk. I think that was real,
too. One could argue that the Academy Award acknowledges a simple fact of life—
it is very difficult to be true in true life, and nearly impossible to be true on screen.
Something exquisitely dark, tragic, and beautiful rings true in the performances of
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in The Help. And for delivering that intangible something, I hope they each receive their industry’s highest honor.

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