Viola Davis and Tavis Smiley spar over 'The Help' controversy

OPINION - In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, stars of 'The Help,' Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, defended themselves against criticism...

In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, stars of The Help, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, defended themselves against criticism that their Oscar-nominated roles as maids in the movie are demeaning to African-Americans.

Smiley started the interview by cutting right to the chase and saying: “I celebrate the two of you. I’m delighted that you were nominated [for Oscars]… and yet I will admit to you. There is an ambivalence here…There is something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid… here we are all these years later and I want you to win, but I’m ambivalent about what you are winning for.”


The two talented and candid actresses responded to his criticism by saying that black artists should not be expected to play only noble and dignified characters. And this is true to a certain extent, because white actors are not held to the same standard. Spencer aptly noted that, “Antony Hopkins won [an Oscar] for being a serial killer who was a cannibal. And Charlize Theron won for being a serial killer.”

Spencer’s response is an excellent point, and yet it is still notable that the Academy chooses to reward black actors only when they play questionable characters, and rarely for more dignified roles.

Smiley rebuts this point by saying that while it’s important to celebrate the accomplishments of Davis and Spencer, there is a lack of balance in Hollywood that relegates black actresses to the role of maid even in 2012.

Despite the fact that black actresses in Hollywood have a hard time getting roles at all, what Davis prefers are roles that reflect realistic representations of human beings. It’s true that at times many African-Americans prefer roles that uplift rather than reveal the ugliness that exists within the world, but it is also true that black actresses can participate in their art without having to play the help.

That limitation on opportunities may not have any to do with Davis or Spencer. In an Oscar roundtable sponsored by Newsweek, Davis spoke about the difficulty with being a darker-skinned African-American woman, and how that affects her ability to get roles in Hollywood.

“I’m a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn’t look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time,” Davis said. When Charlize Theron, who was sitting across from Davis, jumped to her defense to reassure her that Davis is “hot” and was perhaps overstating things, Davis’ point seemed to be lost. The disconnect revealed that the reality of the challenges for black actors and the perception of that difficulty do not match up.

In the same way, the interview with Tavis Smiley is telling in that his point is a solid one — in 2012 two exceptional actresses like Davis and Spencer are still relegated to playing maids. Smiley’s argument could also be viewed as a slight to their amazing achievements, ignoring that they were able to play their roles so well that they are being rewarded by the Hollywood establishment. Davis’ further counterargument to Smiley is well-argued, as she noted that legendary black playwrights like August Wilson were extraordinary because they didn’t only write about noble blacks.

Davis said, ”[t]hat very mindset that [Tavis Smiley has] and that a lot of African-Americans have is absolutely destroying the black artist. The black artist cannot live in a place — in a revisionist place — the black artist can only tell the truth about humanity and humanity is messy, people are messy. Caucasian actors know that. They understand that… We as African-American artists are more concerned with image and message and not execution, which is why every time you see your images they’ve been watered down to the point where they where they are not realistic at all. It’s like all of our humanity has been washed out.”

Davis has a valid point, but it’s also true that there need to be more roles for African-Americans to flex those acting muscles, so that we aren’t again rewarding another black actress for playing a maid with nuance in 40 years from now.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @ZerlinaMaxwell