It’s not often that an actor expresses regret about taking an Oscar-nominated role, but that’s exactly what Viola Davis did in a recent interview with the New York Times.
Fielding a question submitted by a reader on whether she had any regrets on roles she’s passed on, Davis flipped the question, and addressed roles she has taken on that she’s regretted.
Playing Aibileen in the 2011 film The Help was one of them, Davis said.
Here’s the full quote, from The Times:
Almost a better question is, have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted? I have, and “The Help” is on that list. But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great...
I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.
At the time, black audiences criticized the movie for pandering to white audiences and for centering on the white heroine of the film, played by Emma Stone. The Association of Black Women Historians called the film a “disappointing resurrection of Mammy,” saying it “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.”
When asked about her decision to play Aibileen, a maid working for an abusive white woman, by Tavis Smiley in 2012, Davis defended the character alongside her costar, Octavia Spencer (Spencer would end up winning an Oscar for her role).
The actresses said that they had an obligation to not just play noble characters. And Davis told Smiley, “the black artist cannot live in a place— in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity and humanity is messy, people are messy. Caucasian actors know that.”
But since then, she’s become more vocal with her disappointment in the film and how it didn’t truly center black women’s voices and experiences. At a BAFTA event last year, Davis admitted that although she loved the film’s premise, she always had misgivings.
“I love the fact that [Emma Stone’s character] said ‘I am going to write a story from the maids’ perspective of what it feels like to work with these white women.’ Operative term meaning the maids’ perspective,” she said. “I don’t feel like it was from our perspective, that’s the problem I had with it. I had it from the very beginning.”
Davis is currently promoting her latest film, the Steve McQueen-directed thriller Widows, in which she and a small group of women whose hustling husbands have died (hence, widows) hatch a plan to steal $5 million.