You know, I’m not sure what to think about Viola Davis’ new found loose tongue. Whereas Octavia Spencer acted (and still behaves) as if she can see no evil, hear no evil and will speak no evil regarding the revisionist history and downright stereotypical portrayals of blacks in The Help (both the book and the movie), Viola is now speaking up about the Mammyish roles she’s been offered and has ultimately done.
“I have been given a lot of roles that are downtrodden, mammy-ish,” she said. “A lot of lawyers or doctors who have names but absolutely no lives. You’re going to get your three or four scenes, you’re not going to be able to show what you can do. You’re going to get your little bitty paycheck, and then you’re going to be hungry for your next role, which is going to be absolutely the same. That’s the truth.” – quote from Viola Davis, still in denial because she fails to mention the biggest Mammy role of them all – Aibileen from The Help
Quote from NYTimes Article:
Too bad Davis didn’t come clean before promoting The Help, thereby cementing on celluloid yet another docile, blindly loyal caricature of a black woman on screen.
Mammyfied dialogue and dialect from the book and the movie: “You is smart, you is kind, you is important”
That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen’s battle of wills with a cockroach, where she compares her skin color to a roach, one of the filthiest insects on the planet. (Pg 189)
That night I lay in bed thinking. I am so happy for Miss Skeeter. She starting her whole life over. Tears run down my temples into my ears, thinking about her walking down them big city avenues I seen on tee-vee with her long hair behind her. (Pg 437 Aibileen cries more tears over Skeeter escaping Jackson than she does in grief over her dead son, Treelore. The book has her near tears but not releasing them when she thinks about Treelore’s untimely death. This was changed for the movie).
“You saying people think I got the black magic?” – Scene from the book, Page 24 where Minny and Aibileen morph into Amos ‘n Andy. See, Kathryn Stockett concocts a scene I call “Cocoa, Coochie, Clyde” where Aibileen believes she has the power (via prayer) to call down a venereal disease on the woman who ran off with her lothario of a husband Clyde. Even though the novel claims Aibileen and Minny are devout Christians, the book resurrects the stereotypical premise of blacks falling back on the black magic, as Aibileen wonders if members of her congregation think she’s got, and I quote “the black magic?”
And Miss Leefolt come home with her hair all teased up. She got a permanent and she smell like pneumonia (Pg 94 ) – Aibileen, practicing her fondness for malapropism. This type of word error was used to spread stereotypes about black vernacular which still persists to this day. See Amos n’Andy for more examples.
“Just pour some pneumonia in that garbage”…I jot it down, amending it to ammonia (Pg 84) –Skeeter correcting what Aibileen has told her
“Go ahead,” I say. “I ain’t afraid of no philosophy.” (Pg 311, Minny and Aibileen discuss Celia not seeing the “lines” between black and white)
Aibileen can say “philosophy” “congealed salad” “parliamentary” “conjugation””motorized rotunda” and “domesticized feline” yet can’t stop using “pneumonia” for “ammonia”. Yeahrighhhhtttt.
Between her grinning, simpering and cowering in the part of Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer’s “Minny don’t burn no fried chicken” sassy self, they “helped” usher in visions of the good ole days for those who fondly recalled their very own domestic help. Like Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett.
Had Viola bothered to read the entire book (more on that later), she would’ve seen where Aibileen wasn’t a noble character, but simply an ode to the antebellum south, or as Tate Taylor wistfully reveals in this quote:
“We just wanted to tell the truth. Tell the real story and get it right. Many times as southerners our stories have been handled, taken into hands that were outside the south that’s not always as we know it to be. So we just really want to tell the truth . . . (pause) the good and the bad.” –Screenwriter and director of The Help, Tate Taylor
The “truth” consists of misty water colored memories of happy black servants. Large, amiable women who are more than willing to provide love and affection to the white kids in their charge, but when they deal with individuals in their own community there’s no affection to be found. And Kathryn Stockett ignored her own research, where she states this in an audio interview:
“I think they were surprised that I was able, hopefully able to portray the love we felt for these woman and that you know, I assume that they felt for us . . .” (11:29 into the interview)
And this in a published interview:
D.N.: When you interviewed people for the book, was there anything that stood out?
K.S.: What stood out was the emotion that white people had about the connection to their black maids.When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for.
That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job.
For more on the fantasy of “We Love them and they love us” see this post:
Yet Stockett and co. stuck with the antebellum created theory of blacks just loving their employers who oppressed them. And their children. So much so, that Stockett created three black Mammies who were driven by nothing but affection for the characters paired with them (Constantine with Skeeter, Aibileen with Mae Mobley and then Skeeter, Minny with Celia Foote)
Not once does Minny state in the novel that she loves her children. There’s no dialogue where Aibileen expresses affection for a small child other than Mae Mobley, even though Minny’s children, especially Kindra or Benny could sorely use daily affirmations on how they are also “smart, kind and important.”
Here’s how the book, and ultimately the movie frames Aibileen’s “character”:
Another quote by Tate Taylor:
“Viola is just power. She’s just gonna bring such a truthfulness to this. The role of Aibileen, it be, it could go so awry.
It could be so cliché, you know the warm fuzzy big fat black woman that makes everything okay. It would just really cheapen the character, really cheapen the story. Stories like that have been told. Viola is being very brave in showing the true other side of these ladies are where they’re at home. The loss, the poverty, the loneliness, how tired they are and then her ability to swallow it up for the family the next day.
I don’t think Taylor truly gets it either. Having Viola Davis carry extra weight to play the character of the docile, asexual hermit Aibileen, having the character live alone (like Constantine) only to get up each morning to play the “strong black woman” who smothers Mae Mobley with love, and risks her life to help get the other maids to talk to “Miss Skeeter” so she can make everything okay, only she really has no life of her own except church and her job is the definition of a Mammy.
More quotes by Viola Davis that confirm she knew the part of Aibileen was a Mammy role:
“I’m playing a maid, a black actress playing a maid in 2011 in Hollywood, is a lot of pressure. You don’t play a maid. That is something you don’t do. When you play a maid where a white woman has written a story and a white man is directing it, so there is no way that it’s gonna be. . . I’m essentially playing a Mammy. So I felt a lot of pressure. Absolutely. And then and of course pressure from the readers who all wanted Oprah to play the role. And saw her as being seventy years old and about two hundred and fifty pounds or you know, yeah, I felt a lot of pressure. But it’s like Tate says, if you work from that point of pressure and fear, your work is gonna crack. At some point you just have to leave it alone. And know that we have our own standard of excellence . . .”
Link: Atlanta Mom’s on The Move http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc (this was an audio interview that was up on YouTube, but the originators have since taken it down (gee, I wonder why?)
Look, I know life hasn’t been truly fair to either Viola or Octavia, and if you read enough of their interviews, it all comes down to the color of their skin. Or their age. Or their weight. The kind of roles both women believe they should’ve landed just haven’t been there. Each woman either wound up playing someone’s mother or the friend of the lead character. Now they hope to buck the trend with their new shows.
“a woman of color, of a certain age and a certain hue,” as she [Davis] says — in her new capacity. “I don’t see anyone on TV like me in a role like this. And you can’t even mention Halle Berry or Kerry Washington,” she told me, referring to two African-American stars with notably lighter skin.” – Quote from Viola Davis on her new ABC drama
Quote from NYTimes Article:
Viola Davis, after publicly proclaiming she was ditching her wigs for natural hair, has flipped once again back to the wig for her TV series “How to Get Away With Murder.” Either way, she’s an attractive woman. They both are (Spencer and Davis). Too bad they don’t seem to believe it.
However, the time to speak up has come and gone. The power both women had to effect change and to educate the very people who thought they were doing something marvelous and earth shattering by backing The Help has come and gone. At some point I will do a blog post comparing The Help to 12 Years a Slave, which is something I truly think The Help aspired to be.
The problem is, the foundation of The Help was shaky and shady from the start. For more info on what I’m referring to, or “how a bunch of southern friends got together and planned how they’d break into Hollywood using black people, with “help” from their lone black friend, see these posts:
Screen shot of Tate Taylor’s assertion that seeing Viola Davis pretend to pee was worse than a lynching:
There’s also the revelation just below the lynching gaffe about Spencer being there when Taylor was adapting the book into a screen play. Taylor mentions having debates with Spencer, yet look at the first draft and second draft of the screenplay, where Taylor describes Aibileen and Minny as if he’s a pro at envisioning Mammy 101 on screen:
Octavia Spencer was enlisted early on by both Stockett and Taylor to help “sell” the premise. One of her duties apparently involved combating any bad reviews of the novel:
Link: Califormia Literary Review
“Spencer says she understands why some people assume the story will dredge up antiquated mammy stereotypes because she jumped to similar conclusions when Stockett — who, yes, met Spencer through Taylor and is now a close friend — first showed her the manuscript.
“She had written it in a dialect,” Spencer says, “and [after] the very first line I was like: Oh, really?” But after reading the whole novel, Spencer found the characters nuanced.
And nuance is something Taylor says he was determined to bring to the film adaptation, which portrays African American women of the era who weren’t all docile and obedient.
“People insinuate African Americans were all victims until Lyndon Johnson,” he says. “And it’s not true. That isn’t depicted much in cinema.”
“That’s why this project is so refreshing,” Spencer says, jumping in. “The strength is there for the African American characters in the movie.”
Taylor and Spencer dive in to finish each other’s thoughts a lot, sometimes even completing sentences in unison. “He’s like a brother,” Spencer says at one point, noting that they were roommates for five years in L.A. until a few months ago, when she got her own place.”
And then Spencer ran interference whenever Stockett got public criticism. Note what Spencer says to a woman who asks about the insertion of real world events to frame The Help.
The National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Philadelphia convened on August 6, 2011. During a post-screening of the film The Help, a Q&A moderated by MSNBC’s Tamron Hall was held. Mr. James posted (items in bold are my doing):
“A woman in the audience took Stockett to task on the inclusion of sensitive historical moments in the book and her decision to weave them into the fabric of her fictitious story. (Stockett peppers the novel with real life news stories of the time: the murder of Medgar Evers, JFK’s assassination, for example.) But Spencer jumped in, reminding the woman (and everyone else in the audience) that The Help is not a non-fiction book and that it’s Stockett’s job as a fiction author to entertain, not give history lessons with her novel. “It’s your job as parents to teach your children about our history,” Spencer said. And before switching gears, Stockett quickly interjected, “I just made this shit up!” The entire crowd erupted in applause.”
For more on Stockett’s demeaning response (she used it more than once) see this post-
Now recall what Spencer says. “It’s your job to teach your children about our history.” Yet Spencer was just fine with drumming up the age old stereotype of blacks and fried chicken.
And Spencer never corrected her “Friends” regarding the insertion of negative slurs like this one in the book:
“Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311)
They are scared, looking at the back door every ten minutes, afraid they’ll get caught talking to me. Afraid they’ll be beaten like Louvenia’s grandson, or hell, bludgeoned in their front yard like Medgar Evers. (Skeeter, Pg 277)
And guess where that mis-information originated? Apparently from Stockett herself as she goes on to repeat the whole “Medgar Evers was bludgeoned” gaffe on several audio interviews.
In one audio interview Stockett even embellishes Evers death to claim:
“…1963 was a horrifying and momentous year in Mississippi’s history as well as the entire United States. It was… the fall of 62 when James Meredith was accepted into Ole Miss and in 1963 Medgar Evers the uh…who was with the NAACP he was bludgeoned to death on his front yard in front of his children.”
Stated at 8:34 minutes into a 10:31 interview with Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble’s Meet the Writers
And check out this interview with E! where Spencer jumps in to give Viola some assistance.
And there’s the time Ted Casablanca’s question unnerved Viola Davis, so Spencer jumped in:
“I’m not exactly sure where Davis was going with that one, but I assured her I wasn’t the only onewondering such thoughts.
Especially to young people who aren’t schooled in Civil Rights history, I said, “it sort of makes it look like it took a white author to get the job done.”
“Skeeter [Emma Stone’s character] just wanted to be a great writer,” Viola explained, in defense. “And shehelped these women.
“But it is the black women who risked their lives in this movie,” Davis finished.
At which point Spencer gave me one of those And your point is? looks, quickly followed by a huge smile.
“Like I said,” Viola added (smiling as well), “it’s a loaded question.”
But is it, really? Also, everybody, let’s get this question settled now, because I assure you it looks like Davis may very well be getting the Oscar for her Help performance.
So, the somewhat sticky issue ain’t going anywhere.
Okay, so after playing the Mammy of Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett’s dreams, Viola Davis played a clairvoyant Mammy in the film Beautiful Creatures.
So while she now bemoans playing a doctor or a lawyer, at least they weren’t MAMMIES. Both Davis and Spencer were just fine with playing caricatures that black people have fought against for years. That being the stoic, loyal, manless Mammy who was Aibileen, a sweet but slow witted character more than eager to be lead by Skeeter but who couldn’t be bothered with the civil rights movement growing her own community (the movie tried to rectify this glaring error. And yet, even while Stockett admitted “I just made this shit up!” and Taylor claimed “I’m not qualified to make a movie about civil rights” misguided liberals who were eager to crown Stockett the next great southern writer and build Taylor up as some kind of insider regarding making movies with black characters (hopefully, the bomb he landed with Get On Up dispelled that myth) well, Taylor was awarded The Paul Selvin Award by the Writers Guild of America in 2013, even after the lynching comment and saying additional boneheaded shit like this:
“. . .Civil rights is just the backdrop. I’m not qualified to make a film about civil rights. People say to me: ‘Why wasn’t there a lynching? Why aren’t there houses burning down?’ But that’s not what this story is. For me, the most horrific moment in the film is the scene where the maid is sitting with her panties round her ankles in a three-by-three plywood bathroom, like a cat in a litter-box, while an impatient white woman is tapping her foot outside. If people need to see blood and gore and can’t see how horrific that is – well, I don’t have answer to that.”
Please note, The Paul Selvin Award is based on “that member whose script best embodies the spirit of the constitutional and civil rights and liberties which are indispensable to the survival of free writers everywhere and to whose defense Paul Selvin committed his professional life.”
“My key objective was to give this movie street cred especially within the African-American community, to represent them and not sugarcoat it,” said Taylor. – LA Times interview By NICOLE SPERLING
As for Viola Davis, she’s still in denial. Stories that focus on the resiliency of the domestics who marched along side Martin Luther King have yet to be written. What she starred in was a tale of three mammies, where each woman was separated from the black male. And where the book painted the real villain of that time period as black males and not the system of segregation that ensnared them. Minny’s husband was a violent abuser. Aibileen’s no where to be found husband was called “Crisco” by her, and she trained her son to call his father that, as per the novel. The slight backstory on Constantine was that her dark skinned lover left her after their child was born. Constantine gave up her only child because the girl looked white, in another poorly researched character trope that was inserted in the novel but wisely dropped for the movie.
“You know, I heard so many people who said: ‘Oh, “The Help,” I’m just so tired of these images. I’d rather see “Spider Man,” ’ ” she said, referring to the black community. But Hollywood, she said, wouldn’t see that preference as a sign that African-Americans were yearning “to see more complicated stories about black people. No, Hollywood is going to say, ‘They want to see “Spider Man.” ’ That’s the way it works.” – quote by Viola Davis
Quote from NYTimes Article:
Hmm. Well, if Davis thinks the black community is sick of the images portrayed in works like The Help, then how’s that any different from her refusal to read the BS in the book, or rather the parts that clearly paint blacks as the “other”:
“If you didn’t object to the dialect, were there aspects of the book that did bother you?
Davis: The one thing I don’t embrace in any book about black women is I don’t embrace how the looks are described. I always erase that. I don’t care if it’s the greatest writer in the world. I know these black women. The first woman of beauty in my life was my Aunt Joyce, and she was over 300 pounds, and we thought she was Halle Berry to us.
Every time she came to visit, she would have these earrings, and these clothes and the beauty of her skin. We would all sit around her touching her hands and her face and her skin and she was beautiful. I didn’t see the bigness. I just have a different idea of how we look, the hues of our skin, how we exude sensuality and sexuality and how our hair looks. So I always just interpret that for myself. It’s like Chris Walken cuts out all the exclamation points, and the periods. I cut out all the descriptions.”
See What I mean about Davis still being in DENIAL?
For more on the mis-steps with characters of The Help, see this post:
I’m still updating this post. So, its to be continued . . .