Viola Davis: I betrayed myself and my people in The Help

By BBC News

Viola Davis at the BaftasImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Viola Davis says she feels like she “betrayed myself and my people” in 2011 film The Help.

Set in 1960s Mississippi it was nominated for multiple Oscars but Viola says it was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism”.

The film was “invested in the idea of what it means to be Black” but catered “to the white audience”.

It has been one of Netflix’s most-watched films since recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Viola Davis in The HelpImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionViola Davis starred in The Help along with Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard

It’s based on a 2009 book that has been accused of perpetuating a “white saviour” narrative – when black characters are marginalised for the benefit of a white hero who “saves” them.

Viola plays a maid who helps Emma Stone’s journalist character expose racism in the community – and this isn’t the first time she’s said she regrets the role.

“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],” Viola told Vanity Fair.

The Emmy, Oscar and Tony Award-winning actress – the first black actor to win the “Triple Crown of Acting” – says she took the role because she was hoping it would make her “pop”.

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“I was that journeyman actor, trying to get in.”

Viola praised the film’s white writer-director, Tate Taylor, and the majority-female cast that included Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer, whose performance won her an Oscar for best supporting actress.

“I cannot tell you the love I have for these women, and the love they have for me.

“But with any movie – are people ready for the truth?”

Julius Tennon and Viola DavisImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionViola now has a production company with her husband Julius Tennon and will portray Michelle Obama in one of its upcoming shows

Bryce Dallas Howard recently shared her views on The Help too.

“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.

“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,” she wrote on Facebook, sharing a list of films that “centre black lives” instead.

Viola Davies is now considered one of the greatest actors of all time – but her talent wasn’t really recognised until the last decade.

Speaking to Vanity Fair she compared her career – and those of other “unknown, faceless” black actresses who represent earlier versions of herself – to “fabulous white actresses” like Emma Stone, Reese Witherspoon and Kristen Stewart who’ve had “a wonderful role for each stage of their lives, that brought them to the stage they are now. We can’t say that for many actors of colour”.

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