Remarkable and respectable actress Viola Davis repeated the mantra “You is smart. You is kind. You is important” in her role as “The Help’s” downtrodden maid Aibileen. “The Help” is a film adaptation of the novel by Kathryn Stockett of the same name. It ignited a firestorm of critics for its application of a feel-good sheen over the overtly cruel treatment of southern black domestic workers in the early 1960s. If you’ve seen the movie–and I have–you’ll have witnessed the evolution of Davis’ Aibileen and Minny, played brilliantly by actress Octavia Spencer, through the eyes of a well-meaning white writer named Skeeter. Critics in the black community felt that actresses of Davis and Spencer’s caliber should not have to play the roles of maids in 2011, and more importantly should not be playing maids whose voice is only utilized when a “good white person” takes an interest in their story.
Writer Touré wrote a piece for Time magazine asking if “The Help” was America’s most loathsome film? Whether you believe so or not, the film has garnered multiple award nominations. The most prestigious being the Academy Award nominations for Best Film, Best Actress for Davis, and Best Supporting Actress for Spencer. This is not Davis’ first brush with the Oscars. She was previously nominated for her brief but riveting role as Mrs. Miller in 2008′s “Doubt.” She has also taken home the Tony for Lead Actress in a Play in 2010 for her role as Rose Maxson in August Wilson’s play “Fences.”
Davis is obviously a formidable actress. So, why does Hollywood still offer black actresses roles of the maid? It’s a question that has been asked of Davis and Spencer since the film’s release last summer. Davis has defended her role by gently reminding that this is the story of some black women. It is an ugly reminder of a past that America would like to cleanse itself from but it is, as Davis defended, a representation of what women like Aibileen and Minny endured.
I agree with Davis. The story being depicted in “The Help” is a story that needs to be told. The racial tensions were and do reside in society. It is an issue that will not be folded away neatly. It has to be handled with a sensitivity that is missing from “The Help.” On one hand, I want to applaud Davis and Spencer for taking these meager roles and serving the black community well by transforming through their art on our screens. I also want to be proud of their nominations. But these come with a price.
I went to see “The Help” with my grandmother at her insistence. I wasn’t particularly interested in a story about black maids but my grandmother believed that not only was it prudent that I see it, she also thought we should bring along her great-granddaughter who is eight. I knew the risk in seeing the film with my grandmother. She is an outspoken seventy-nine year old woman with particular ideas about society and its treatment of black people. She is that woman in the grocery store or in a principal’s office voicing her displeasure about ill-treatment that she feels is due to racism. My grandmother is fearless that way.
We had the same reaction to the film. Numbness. We were surrounded by a group of white women in the theater who actually clapped during parts in the movie that made us cringe in our seats. Even my little cousin understood in those awkward moments that there was nothing celebratory about what was happening on the screen. After the credits rolled, my grandmother who uses a cane, slowly rose from her seat and started to make her way out of the theater. A white woman who had sat directly in front of us during the film came over to us and asked, “Wasn’t that a great movie?” I waited for my grandmother to speak the full blast of her disgust. She didn’t. She actually smiled and said, “Yes, it was.” I was shocked. During the film she’d commented so frequently during the humiliating scenes that I grew embarrassed. What had happened to my fiery grandmother?
I asked her after we were in the car why she hadn’t been truthful with the woman. I knew that the movie didn’t make her as cheerful and warm as the woman who’d asked the question. My grandmother looked at me and said, “She wouldn’t understand. They don’t want to understand.”
That was exactly what it was. And it is exactly why I’m so ambivalent about the film. I want Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to take home the Oscar but I don’t want it to be for a film that forces my grandmother to go inside of herself to placate a “well-meaning” white woman. Her question was harmless. She really did feel as if the movie had restored her hope in humanity. But all we felt was the cold shoulder of racism.