Viola Davis and George Clooney on cover of Entertainment Weekly

Viola Davis –long the darling of Black magazines– is finally being recognized for her achievements and talent as an actress!

As an Oscar® contender for her role in “The Help,” she and another contender –namely, George Clooney– are gracing the cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine.

As few actresses of her caliber dare to speak up about the dearth of roles for Black actresses, let alone why Hollywood seems transfixed by hiring Black entertainers, rappers and singers for acting roles, but don’t do that for white actors.

According to Ms. Davis:

“Only one black actress in history has been back [at the Oscars] more than once, and that’s Whoopi Goldberg,” Davis told Entertainment Weekly. “But that’s only because there aren’t a lot of roles out there that are going to bring you back. Say if you have two great roles for an African-American actress in a year — one actress can cover it. So if there’s five really good black actresses out there, and that one actress gets it all, then the other four can sit for the next three years.”

Pick up a copy of Entertainment Weekly or read more at Clutch Magazine

Struggling with “The Help”

My introduction to “The Help” was not through the NY Times Bestseller list or excited chatter from friends and co-workers.

In fact, my introduction to it was through a scathing admonition against its author for her portrayal of Black women in the South and her possible copyright infringement on the image of an actual Black maid and her possible plagiarism from her brother’s maid whose name is Ablene (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/lawsuit-black-maid-ablene-cooper-sues-author-kathryn/story?id=12968562).

Ms. Stockett has come out against the most vocal opponents and responded to Ablene Cooper’s accusation with the following statement:

“The character ‘Aibileen Clark’ in The Help is a fictional character and is not intended to depict Mrs. Cooper. I’ve met Mrs. Cooper only briefly. I used the name ‘Aibileen’ because it resonated with ‘Constantine,’ the beloved woman who took care of the book’s main character in her youth. As readers of The Help know, my Aibileen is a true heroine: she is intelligent, an author, a devoted servant of the Lord and a good mother.”

USA Today (February 23, 2011)

Various books come and go and I don’t believe that written works should be censored beyond the author’s intent –otherwise, how would we know what they’re trying to convey. However, Kathryn Stockett’s book seemed to bypass the concerns conveyed by Black women in particular.

That’s what’s so disturbing, i.e., the silencing of the Black woman –much like Black maids in the pre-Civil Rights South.

Black women’s concerns about a white, Southern woman writing about Black maids in the segregated, Jim Crow south –outside of nonfiction—made some Black women a bit uncomfortable.

With the current climate of various extremist groups and individuals trying to “revise” the history of African Americans in the United States, it immediately set off some red flags for me.

Let’s not forget about Presidential candidate Michelle Bauchmann’s staunch defense that enslaved Black children were better off in slavery than they are now –you know, free (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/11/gop-candidates-caught-in-slavery-controversy/). Or some right-wing group’s assumption that the Civil War was fought for States Rights and not a fight about slavery, therefore, carrying a Confederate flag is a nonissue (http://www.politicususa.com/en/the-tea-party-is-wrong-the-civil-war-was-fought-over-slavery).

My grandmother was a domestic, but she didn’t become one until she moved to San Francisco during World War II. Stuck in a growing city with few opportunities for smart, proud Black women, she became a domestic for San Francisco’s elite and politicians. She remembered the South, and though her family had their own comforts based on their class, she didn’t’ want to stay there.

Granted, racism against African Americans is anywhere, north, south, east or west, and can be delivered by non-whites as well as whites, but we’re talking about the segregationist south which was a black and white issue.

“The Help” is now made into a film starring one of my favorite actresses, Viola Davis. The main character, Skeeter, is played by another one of my favorite actresses, Emma Stone. Neither of those women are the issue.

I thought some of the concerns that arose when “The Help” was a book, would somehow be addressed or acknowledged during the filming process.

No.

Author Kathryn Stockett seemed to picked up more steam. How dare anyone (especially Black women) take offense to her book, story or portrayals. She seemingly didn’t seek out a Black woman –or Black woman consultants—who could bring a bit more reality to the existence of powerless, segregated Black women in Mississippi. No. Instead she hired her Southern brethren and childhood friend Tate Taylor to take on the film.

According to the L.A. Times, even lead actress Viola Davis had some concerns about Taylor’s role:

(Davis) said she was so serious because she knew how many expectations were riding on the film. “You get pressure from so many groups of people. You get pressure from African Americans, you get pressure from women, you get pressure from other actors. So all those voices are in your head,” she said.

Los Angeles Times (March 30, 2011)

The work is fiction, I know that. My concerns are bigger than Kathryn Stockett’s story.


It’s about the reality of Black women in the pre-Civil Rights South who were often the most consistent wage earners in their families. Their status was often socially low, and their power even lower. There are few women during this era who would have risked their low-wage but consistent job by “telling” on their employers. In the small towns they occupied, everyone knows everyone else’s business. Would any one of these women knowingly have told the personal goings-on of their employer’s household without the option of leaving town? If it was even assumed that one of these women leaked confidential information to others, don’t we understand that they would’ve have been promptly fired and the employer (often gender segregated white women with their own issues surrounding power) would have “blacklisted” the maid?

So that’s my issue with the book and the film.

For the thousands of well written books about Black women who were domestics, this is the book that Hollywood thinks is a “good read,” regardless of the critics who have said otherwise.

In the future, Hollywood needs to make a concerted effort to incorporate African American consultants who are well-versed in the stories, history and experiences of this subject …not relying on the actresses themselves. It’s rare that you will find an African American actress who has the conviction of Ms. Davis to voice her opinion and to make a concerted effort to get the story right without acquiescing to the opinion of the masses. It’s also rare that an actress –any actress—will care enough to know the history surrounding a part like this.

For my part, I will not be giving Ms. Stockett any more money; however, I will always support the good faith efforts of Black actresses such as Ms. Davis.

Additional links: