Viola Davis has enjoyed a storied career like no other, a journey to Hollywood stardom that is rarely seen, achieving historic success in a remarkably short time working in the realm of cinema. With four Oscar nominations to her name already, Davis is breaking records with every new project, proving that her remarkable skill can break down tired societal barriers. “Viola is one of the great actors of all time,” Denzel Washington once commented. “She’s been recognised later than some. But some people get the opportunity early, and they’re done by Tuesday,” he added.
Washington’s comments couldn’t be more accurate. Having shown very little interest in the big screen during the formative years of her career, Davis instead focused her attentions on the stage, building a reputation that would later see her recognised as one of the leading actors of Broadway during the 2000s. As whispers began to circulation throughout the movie business regarding her talent, Davis eventually secured a film breakthrough with a performance in John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 drama Doubt, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. From that moment on, Davis was on a path to international stardom.
Now revered as the first and only African-American actor to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting, Davis has dazzled in pictures such as Fences, Widows, The Suicide Squad and, most recently, the brilliant Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. However, sitting alongside that list of exceptional pictures is one moment of regret, a movie that proved to be a rare misstep from Davis, despite taking the plaudits for her performance.
In 2011, director Tate Taylor recruited Davis to star in The Help alongside an ensemble cast of Jessica Chastain, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer, and others. The film, based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel of the same name, is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
Centring on the story created by Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a young white journalist, The Help delves deep into Phelan’s relationship with Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, two black maids that are subjected to abhorrent racism at the hands of white families. While the movie would later become a commercial and critical success, earning four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress for Davis, and Best Supporting Actress for both Chastain and Spencer, it also drew by criticism for harbouring a white saviour narrative, a topic that ultimately hit Davis hard.
Reflecting on her career to date, Davis once said: “Almost a better question is, have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted? I have, and The Help is on that list,” during an interview with Vanity Fair. “But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great. The friendships that I formed are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor.”
Davis struggled with the stories told throughout the project, further explaining: “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny [played by Octavia Spencer, who won a best-supporting-actress Oscar]. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”
“They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but…it’s catering to the white audience,” she later told writer Sonia Saraiya. “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.”
She added, “There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help. 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 says. The Help was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Bryce Dallas Howard, who also shared her views on The Help, explaining; “I’m so grateful for the exquisite friendships that came from that film — our bond is something I treasure deeply and will last a lifetime,” she wrote on Facebook. “This being said, The Help is a fictional story told through the perspective of a white character and was created by predominantly white storytellers. We can all go further”.
Offering some reason as to why Davis took the role in the first place, she explained: “I was that journeyman actor, trying to get in.”
Despite her regret, Davis has always been sincere in her admiration for the cast and crew that worked on The Help, openly praising director Taylor and castmates Stone, Chastain and Octavia Spencer. “I cannot tell you the love I have for these women, and the love they have for me,” she said. “But with any movie – are people ready for the truth?”