Challenging roles

In "Eat Pray Love," starring Julia Roberts, Viola Davis (center) plays the best friend - a common role for black women. "I absolutely want roles for women, especially African American women, to be redefined," Davis says.
In "Eat Pray Love," starring Julia Roberts, Viola Davis (center) plays the best friend - a common role for black women. "I absolutely want roles for women, especially African American women, to be redefined," Davis says.

"The Help's" central character is "rich and palpable" - and a maid. Overcoming her hesitations, Viola Davis made the part her own, and intends to expand such opportunities for other black actresses.

Posted: August 11, 2011

Accepting an award at the Screen Actors Guild ceremony in 2009, Meryl Streep effusively thanked her costars in Doubt. She singled out "The gigantically gifted Viola Davis - my God, somebody give her a movie!"

Somebody did.

It's called The Help.

In this reassuring movie about anxious times, Davis is Aibileen, a domestic in 1962 Mississippi who is done being stoic about life in the Jim Crow South. She takes the false smile from her face and sweeps it into the dustpan, opening up to a white girl (Emma Stone) who is collecting oral histories from the black women who raise white babies.

Davis is funny, stormy, tender, electric, splendid. Roger Ebert calls her performance "a force of nature." Others call her an Oscar shoo-in.

But, admits the two-time Tony winner (King Hedley II, Fences) and Oscar nominee (Doubt), "I had a lot of trepidation taking this role."

Over breakfast Saturday at the Four Seasons, the glamazon in a fuchsia Elie Tahari frock says, "The role of maid carries a lot of stigma."

Davis, who turns 46 today, carries herself like Athena, eyes like lightning bolts. Her voice is river-deep, her heels mountain-high. She was made to sit at the head of the table. Little wonder F. Gary Gray cast her as the mayor of Philadelphia in Law-Abiding Citizen.

In 1940, when Hattie McDaniel was attacked for playing the servile role of Mammy in Gone With the Wind (and became the first African American to win an Oscar), she answered her critics with pragmatism. "Better to play a maid than be a maid." But 71 years later, Davis wasn't so sure.

When director Tate Taylor offered Davis the role of Aibileen, she wrestled with the offer.

"It would have been an easier decision to make had the role not been so fully realized," reflects Davis, who looked for reasons not to take the part.

"But Aibileen was so rich and palpable. I saw my mother, grandmother, and aunts in her," she says. "I've played mayors and doctors and lawyers who were less fully realized than Aibileen." Davis' mother was a huge influence on how she played Aibileen.

"So was Fannie Lou Hamer," Davis said of the Mississippi civil rights and voter-registration activist who was sterilized, without her knowledge, in 1961 as part of the state's program to reduce the black population. "I saw her in my head. I thought, how do you go from experiencing those atrocities to fighting for freedom and voter registration? Hers was a story of human courage and resilience. My challenge with Aibileen was to explore where that could possibly come from."

"For Viola, Aibileen is a great woman who happens to be a maid," says The Help director Taylor.

"I think one of the stigmas that African American actors suffer is that people are more concerned with the image of a character than with an actor's execution of the role," Davis muses. No one looks at Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and tsk-tsks about negative role models.

"In fact [for white actors], the more politically incorrect the role, the more people like it. [Black actors] don't have that luxury. If we play a character who in any way is politically incorrect, our work on screen is null and void." For a working actor like Davis, this is just another double standard.

She was born in South Carolina. In infancy, Davis' family moved to Rhode Island, where her father groomed horses at racetracks, her mother cleaned houses, and the jury-rigged wiring in their building made for a lot of fires.

"Bad electric. Bad plumbing. Rats eating pigeons outside," she says. "But to be honest and truthful, as much as we had poverty, we had great times. Growing up that poor, that's when you develop your imagination." She loved going to the Salvation Army with her three older sisters to buy old clothes to remake into costumes. (Her younger sister came along when Davis was 11.)

"The source of Viola's strength comes from how she handles adversity," says Taylor. "She went to therapy, she dealt with it, she worked through it, she made it a strength."

Davis' destiny was sealed when she watched Cicely Tyson, now her costar in The Help, on television in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. "I was 7 years old, living in Central Falls, Rhode Island, and it pretty much did it for me, seeing her age from 10 to 110. I saw craft, I saw intelligence, I saw skill." And she saw her own future as an actress.

"For me, acting is a type of healing - a wonderful opportunity to express myself in a way I can't in my normal life."

And now, having worked with Tyson in The Help? "It's like I've come full circle. I dreamed the biggest dream I could dream, and it's almost too big for me."

Davis has other dreams. With her husband, actor Julius Tennon, she has formed JuVee Inc., a production company dedicated to developing roles for women, especially African American women.

"How often have you seen a sexy, vulnerable, strong fortysomething black woman on screen?" Davis asks. Once. In 1998. Angela Bassett in How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

"One is the exception," says Davis. "I want it to be the rule."  

While Davis has had multidimensional roles on stage and television, prior to The Help, her memorable screen parts have been seven-minute tours de force. There was Antwone Fisher, as the title character's drug-addicted mother, and Doubt, as the mother of a parochial-school boy who may be a victim of sexual abuse.

Screen opportunities are few and far between, she says. "The explanation for this is a five-hour conversation."

After all these years, screen opportunities for women of color remain maddeningly limited, says Margo Jefferson, a cultural critic and professor at the New School.

"What are the movie possibilities for black women?" asks Jefferson. She ticks them off: Restricted to maids in period pieces like the The Help. Or to singers in showbiz nostalgia like Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records. Consigned to the role of heroine's best friend, as Davis was to Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love and Diane Lane in Nights in Rodanthe.

Now that she's in a position to produce, Davis has optioned The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, about early 20th-century ranchers in South Dakota. "It's like a John Ford movie," she says, "with the sweep of history and landscape.

"I absolutely want roles for women, especially African American women, to be redefined," she says. "I have a stack of scripts from writers, black writers, and the women are all ghetto moms."

"Viola wants a spectrum of African American women on screen," says Taylor. "She wants to tell human stories."

"Wouldn't it be much more challenging - plenty of current realities, unsettling for audiences - if Viola Davis played 'The Help' in a 2011 family?" Jefferson asks.

Or if she played Fannie Lou Hamer?

See Carrie Rickey and Viola Davis discuss Cicely Tyson at

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402


Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at

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