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Viola Davis Isn’t Holding Back About ‘The Help’: ‘I Betrayed Myself, and My People’

It’s been nearly a decade since The Help hit theaters, and two years since star Viola Davis first admitted she regretted her role in the popular film. But just last month, the movie made headlines when it became a top trending pick on Netflix. Now, Davis isn’t holding back when it comes to discussing why the movie is problematic — and how it’s emblematic of a larger issue that still very much plagues Hollywood.

Today, Davis is iconic. In 2015, she became the first Black woman to ever win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama for How to Get Away With Murder. Her trophy collection also includes an Oscar and a Tony for Fences. But Davis wasn’t part of the pop culture vernacular when she accepted her role in The Help, which was precisely why she accepted it. “I was that journeyman actor, trying to get in,” she explained in Vanity Fair’s latest cover story. So, despite the fact the film centers white voices and stories over the Black experience, Davis said yes to bringing circa-1960s fictional maid Aibileen Clark to the screen (a role she won Best Supporting Actress for in 2012).

While Davis maintains her love for the film’s director, Tate Taylor, and the cast — “I cannot tell you the love I have for these women, and the love they have for me” — she doesn’t mince words when it comes to her feelings about the film now. Like many films, she says, it was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”

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Presenting our July/August cover star: @ViolaDavis. Last month, the Oscar winner took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd—but she’s no stranger to fighting for what’s right. As a Black woman in Hollywood, she’s spent her career doing it: “My entire life has been a protest,” Davis says. “My production company is my protest. Me not wearing a wig at the Oscars in 2012 was my protest. It is a part of my voice, just like introducing myself to you and saying, ‘Hello, my name is Viola Davis.’” Davis was photographed by @dario.studio—the first Black photographer to shoot a Vanity Fair cover. At the link in bio, Davis speaks with V.F. about her extraordinary journey out of poverty and into the stubbornly unequal Hollywood system. Story by @soniasaraiya Photographed by @dario.studio Styled by @elizabethstewart1 Coatdress @maxmara Earrings @pomellato

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She understands the film’s appeal. She really does. That packaging is part of the issue, though; the film turns racism into lighthearted fare, a social farce. “There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help,” she acknowledged, adding, “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].”

This issue of white-centered storytelling isn’t new. “Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity,” Davis said. “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 theater and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were.”

It’s different for the Emma Stones and the Reese Witherspoons of the acting world. Davis respects these women and takes nothing away from their talent. However, young white actresses don’t have to contend with the same lack of visibility that young Black actresses do. “There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known. To pop her!” said Davis, pointing to the fact that the “fabulous white actresses” have the benefit of “a wonderful role for each stage of their lives, that brought them to the stage they are now.”

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In 2015, @violadavis became the first Black woman ever to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama for ‘How to Get Away With Murder.’ In 2017, she won an Oscar for her supporting role as Rose Maxson in ‘Fences’—a part for which she also collected a Tony. Today, she is using her own production company to give young Black actors a platform—in every stage of their careers. “There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known. To pop her!” Davis tells V.F., naming other performers—Emma Stone, Reese Witherspoon, Kristen Stewart—all “fabulous white actresses,” who 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 color.” Read our July/August cover story at the link in bio. Story by @soniasaraiya Photographed by @dario.studio Styled by @elizabethstewart1 Gown: @giorgioarmani Earrings: @mounserstudio Cuff: @gilesandbrother

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For actors of color, the options are fewer and farther between when they’re trying to break into the industry. She lamented, “If there is a place that is a metaphor for just fitting in and squelching your own authentic voice, Hollywood would be the place.” Hence, taking roles like Davis did in The Help. Davis formed her production company in part for this very reason — to give BIPOC the kind of meaty, complex, career-making roles she wishes she’d been offered sooner.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Davis has been raising her voice even more to call attention to the Black experience. When asked if she’d ever participated in protests before this point, she told Vanity Fair, “I feel like my entire life has been a protest. Me not wearing a wig at the Oscars in 2012 was my protest. It is a part of my voice, just like introducing myself to you and saying, ‘Hello, my name is Viola Davis.’”

Before you go, click here to discover books that explore systemic racism. 

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