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Viola Davis says The Help was created in the “cesspool of systemic racism”

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Kayleigh Dray
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Viola Davis

“It’s catering to the white audience,” explains Viola Davis.

Just a few weeks ago, The Help became one of the most-watched films on Netflix US amid global Black Lives Matter protests. Many viewers, it seemed, were using the Academy Award-winning movie as a tool to educate themselves about systemic racism.

Unfortunately, though, The Help – based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel of the same name – is deeply problematic for a number of reasons. It was written and directed by a white man, for starters, and based on a novel by a white woman. It is set during the civil rights movement, but its focus is on a privileged white woman (Emma Stone). And, of course, there’s the fact that the film purposefully fictionalises the racial struggle in a manner more palatable to white audiences.

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Now, in a new interview with Vanity Fair, Viola Davis – who portrayed maid Aibileen Clark in the 2011 film – has explained that The Help was created in the “cesspool of systemic racism.”

“Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity,” she says. “They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but…it’s catering to the white audience. The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. Then they leave the movie theatre and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were.”

viola davis
Viola Davis: “There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known.”

Davis, whilst acknowledging The Help’s commercial success and the incredible relationships she formed with her castmates (“I cannot tell you the love I have for these women, and the love they have for me”), goes on to state that she feels as if she betrayed herself by starring in it.

“There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth].”

Powerfully, she adds that she hopes Hollywood will create more space for young Black women going forward.

“There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known,” says Davis. “To pop her! Fabulous white actresses [have had] a wonderful role for each stage of their lives, that brought them to the stage they are now. We can’t say that for many actors of colour.”

It is worth noting that Davis was photographed for her Vanity Fair cover story by Dario Calmese, making this the first time a Black photographer has shot the cover.

Similarly, it is also worth noting that Davis is not the only one of The Help’s stars to criticise the film. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, Bryce Dallas-Howard – who starred in The Help alongside Davis as the villainous Hilly Holbrook – urged fans of the movie to seek out other films that better address racism and race relations in America.

“I’ve heard that The Help is the most viewed film on Netflix right now,” she began her post on Facebook. “I’m so grateful for the exquisite friendships that came from that film – our bond is something I treasure deeply and will last a lifetime. 

“This being said, The Help is a fictional story told through the perspective of a white character and was created by predominantly white storytellers. We can all go further.”

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In a bid to help people do just this, Howard compiled a list of films and TV shows that she said better highlights the black experience than The Help, which you can view in her post below.

“Stories are a gateway to radical empathy and the greatest ones are catalysts for action,” Howard added.

“If you are seeking ways to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, lynchings, segregation, Jim Crow, and all the ways in which those have an impact on us today, here are a handful of powerful, essential, masterful films and shows that centre Black lives, stories, creators, and / or performers.”

Noting that her selection is by no means a “comprehensive list”, Howard encouraged followers to share their own suggestions in the comments box below her post. To date, that post has received over 150 comments and counting.

You can find Stylist’s own curated list of Netflix shows, documentaries, and films that put Black people front and centre here.

Some are educational, some are entertaining. All, however, are well worth your time.

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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