Can examining the struggle for racial equality in the past onscreen open a more honest dialogue about ongoing issues in the present? “The Help” star Viola Davis hopes so.
Davis turns in a compelling, often heartbreaking performance as Aibileen Clark, a long-suffering African-American maid in 1960s Mississippi who finally finds a voice for her indignities through a book detailing the troubles faced by domestic staff who are simultaneously part of the family yet also expected to know their limited place and rights. The Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated actress (“Doubt”) tells PopcornBiz she hopes facing the ugly realities of the past depicted in "The Help" will cause audiences to deal more openly with issues of race in modern society.
“I think that once Obama became president there was a sigh of relief from people, thinking that racism is over. But we all know that whatever took 346 years of doing is not going to be undone in 50 years – it's just not,” says Davis. “We as Americans just want to be entertained and part of that is to escape whatever ills are going on in our personal lives and our political lives, but I hope that people aren't laughing and having such a good time that they miss the larger message -- even within that laughter and all of that – and that it doesn't have an impact on people.”
"The Help", based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, provides an eye-opening portrait of the day-to-day inequities faced by African-Americans just five decades ago that might surprise some audiences. “We're not educated about it,” says Davis. “It's swept under the rug. It's the big white elephant in the room in our culture."
She says she hopes audiences will embrace, rather than recoil from, the realities of that time period and bring the compassion they feel for the characters to bear on more subtle forms of racism that are still pervasive today.
“I think that people in general are – and I know I am, I'll put myself in there – afraid of honest discourse,” she says. “We always want to be in agreement with each other because we want to get along."
The movie was also an unusual chance to bring together several black actresses.
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Davis says that after reading the book and learning of plans to adapt it on film, “I absolutely wanted to be a part of it. You just want to be a part of anything that has a lot of roles for black actresses. You just don't stumble upon it. Usually it's maybe one, maybe two black roles in a movie – especially in a mainstream movie.
"I said, 'Oh, there are roles for black actresses!' It was a fabulous book, but of course I was thinking as an actress and beyond when I was reading the book. I was thinking, 'Aibileen, Minny, Yule Mae, Constantine – That's like four [roles] already. They're doing good.' So, yeah, I said, 'This is going to be good.'”
Because there continue to be a limited number of meaty film roles for African-American women, Davis said the competition for the roles was fierce. “The deprivation is something else, and so every black actress came out of the woodwork,” she admits.
Now, she tries to envision a day in which the success of “The Help” can break open even more opportunities for her and an her colleagues. “That's a three-hour discussion. That's an ‘I hope’ thing.”