Yesterday was yet another day where I got on my soapbox to defend THE HELP. The film came out last summer and the book’s been out longer, but I still feel like I’m the only person who looked forward to appreciating either. I mean how often do you get a film about:
- a female ensemble cast
- starring two strong Black actresses w/ top billing
- backed by a studio with money to market to a female demo of all ages
- the female characters aren’t talking about how to get a man in every scene
- released in the middle of a man-movie-summer?
Also let’s not forget the book got Americans reading for pleasure again!
Never fear, this is not a rouse to get anyone on THE HELP bandwagon. No, I think we’ve exhausted that subject. You either want to read/see it or you don’t. The olive branch for an audience divided definitely seems to be the amazingly talented Mrs. Viola Davis.
Mrs. Davis had me in that painfully beautiful scene from DOUBT. If you haven’t seen it, stop whatever you’re doing and watch it here. From a writer/director’s perspective, you dream of finding an actor who can give that visceral life to words that have only existed in your head or on paper. To see Davis standing head to toe with Meryl Streep, perhaps even surpassing her, gave me chills. The Academy finally recognized her caliber with a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Davis was pretty much in one scene in the entire movie and went head to head in the same category against co-star Amy Adams (who appears in top billing). Unheard of, right?
Fast forward to the 2012 award season and all eyes are on Davis again. Will she or won’t she take home the Best Actress statue for THE HELP? I feel like we’re a nation divided on this one. Team “I’m tired of Blacks winning trophies playing maids” versus Team “She played the hell outta that role and deserves props where props is due”. I admit that I’m all for Davis going home with the gold on Oscar night. The fact is the Academy Awards are a popularity contest, but sometimes, just sometimes they get it right. There are very few actors today who commit to completely transforming themselves into the character they play, surprising you, reaching you alone in the crowded theater. Viola Davis is one of those actors.
To the folks on team “tired of Black maids”, have you read about the state of roles for Black actresses? Davis’ heartbreaking quote said it best as it made way around the Twittersphere after her SAG best actress win for THE HELP:
“They just don’t write lead roles for people who look like me.”
There are exceptional brown women who can’t play the roles their talents call for because they just aren’t being written. I find this infuriating because the most important note I took from THE HELP is that both Viola and her co-star Octavia Spencer (“Minny”) can without a doubt hold their own in a lead role in a film. I recently saw SMASHED at Sundance and I’m pretty sure I saw Octavia Spencer in three full scenes and a couple of cutaways. She was memorable in her role as the wise AA sponsor but I was left feeling like “That’s it?”
Last week it was announced that Davis will be starring in two features, high school literature-turned-blockbuster ENDER’S GAME and Twilight-esque BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, while Spencer will be in sci-fi graphic novel adaptation SNOW PIERCER. The blog world’s been musing the connection between the film and the leading actresses’ recent success for a while now. At the end of the day, despite which team you’re on, I think there are some observations to be made. People of color are still emerging players in the film world. For these two particular Black actresses, starring in a studio vehicle playing maids opened doors that might have taken them five more years otherwise. As an audience, we can support the actors of color we admire fully by seeing their films. Make them a brand household name with your loyal dollars and word-of-mouth advertising. Most importantly, if you are an aspiring or current writer, director or producer and Mrs. Davis’ words cut you deep, do something about. Give us three-dimensional females living in 2012. Let them fall in love. Show them laughing. Make America finally see the beauty that longtime fans already know. Create the roles these women deserve. I know I’m writing as fast as I can, Mrs. Davis.