Viola Davis, the Oscar-winning actress and the star of the new crime drama, “Widows,” which debuted earlier this month at Toronto International Film Festival was interviewed by the New York Times yesterday. In a question submitted by a reader in Chicago, she was asked whether there were any roles she had turned down and regretted it. Naturally, there were one or two as there usually are with actors but then Davis proposed a better question for herself, “have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted?”.
Her answer was that yes, she had. Davis went on to name the role which was as Aibileen Clark, one of the protagonists in The Help (2011). Davis explained how “it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard,” referring to Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who were both maids. The film and the book of the same name both relied on the White-centered nature of the plots which “sanitised the pain of the era” and many of the tougher, more raw scenes were cut out of the final film but left in the book, written by a White woman who’s only ‘experience’ of the Civil Rights Movement was having a Black maid of her own in the South while she was growing up. The entire plot of the book and movie was contingent on how Miss Skeeter, an aspiring White journalist, coerced the maids into risking their jobs and even their lives to tell Skeeter what it was like to serve White people. They are totally dependent on her and are pretty much just plot devices to further the journey of Miss Skeeter and her White saviour complex.
Viola Davis has previously spoken about her issues with The Help in January of 2017 but said that she “absolutely loved the premise” but did speak out about the character of Miss Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) and said that she didn’t feel like the lives of the maid’s were from the perspective of the Black women who were maids. Minny and Aibileen were met with thinly veiled hatred from the White women and were completely isolated but even when Davis did try to have these moments filmed with Spencer, they seldom made it into the final film. A scene in which Spencer’s character was beaten by her husband was also removed from the film for being “too depressing” and any improv between Davis and Spencer was also cut out because it made them seem “too mean” yet there were no problems with the White characters saying the N-word after every few sentences. Minny and Aibileen’s experiences, though fictional, was a representation of what Black maids did have to go through in the South during the 60’s. “I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom,” Davis told the New York Times, “I want to know how [the maids] really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”
In 2011, a former maid filed a $75,000 lawsuit against Katherine Stockett, the author who wrote The Help, saying her portrayal of maids was humiliating. The maid had worked for the Stockett family and inspired the character Davis eventually played. The suit was unfortunately dismissed by a Mississippi judge. The title itself of both the book and the movie revolves around maids like Aibileen and Minny but if only their plots did too.