“Have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted?” muses Viola Davis. “I have – and The Help is on that list.”
The Help – which roared into cinemas in 2011 – has long been the subject of debate. Written and directed by Tate Taylor, the film recounts the story of young white woman and aspiring journalist Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) and her relationship with two black maids, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi.
The film opened to positive reviews and made over $200 million at the box office. Indeed, Spencer won Best Supporting Actress at the 84th Academy Awards – while Davis and Jessica Chastain were also nominated for their performances. However, The Help has been substantially criticised, too – particularly for its mawkish depiction of racism in America.
Indeed, Ida E. Jones, the national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, famously released an open statement criticising the film, stating: “Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivialises the experiences of black domestic workers.”
And now, in a new interview with the New York Times, Davis herself has admitted that she regrets being a part of the production.
After being asked if she had “ever passed on a role and regretted it”, Davis responded: “Almost a better question is, have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted? I have, and The Help is on that list. But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great. The friendships that I formed are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor.”
The award-winning actress continued: “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”
Of course, this is not the first time that Davis – who is currently on tour promoting her new film, Widows – has flagged her concerns about The Help.
Just a few years ago, she opened up about her “issues” with the film, saying: “I love the fact that [Emma Stone’s character] Eugenia said ‘I am going to write a story from the maids’ perspective of what it feels like to work with these white women’. Operative term being THE MAID’S PERSPECTIVE. I don’t feel like it was from our perspective, that’s the problem I had with it. And I had it from the very beginning.”
Sharing details of a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor, in which she counselled Spencer’s character about escaping domestic abuse, Davis explained that the footage didn’t make it into the film because it was deemed “too depressing.”
“That’s the issue I have with a lot of our stories. By the time … it makes it to the screen, the truth is so filtered down, and then it’s given to you to make you feel very comfortable,” she said.
“It’s not our job to make you feel comfortable, it really isn’t. If you feel comfortable, then that is your journey, and your cross to bear. That is the beauty of art, the beauty of art is that we throw it to you, you receive it, and if you shift in some way, [then] we’ve done our job.”