Tavis Smiley Takes on Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and "The Help"

posted Feb 15, 2012, 12:05 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Feb 16, 2012, 12:58 PM ]
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer of "The Help"

I generally hate comment threads because most people’s responses to a story tend to be childish insults or general inanity based less on actual thought and more on platitudes and rhetoric. There are times, however, when I can’t resist scrolling through that general inanity when a topic is of particular interest to me.

Such was the case when I read a story on thegrio.com by Zerlina Maxwell about a rather passionate discussion between Viola Davis (whom I adore), Octavia Spencer (whom I love) and TV personality Tavis Smiley on his late night PBS talk show.

Davis and Spencer have both won multiple awards for their work in the summer release The Help. Both are also up for Oscars, respectively as Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Both are favored to win and rightfully so.

Smiley started in right away on the frustratingly enduring issue of them not only playing maids but winning awards and being nominated for Oscars for those roles some 70 years after Hattie McDaniel won for her role as a maid in Gone with the Wind.  

While Smiley did compliment them on their performances in the film and expressed that he really wants them both to win on January 26, he took issue with the fact that the Academy continues to bestow Oscars to black actors for less-than-savory roles, citing Denzel Washington’s Best Actor win in 2002 for playing a crooked LA cop in Training Day.

I can partially understand where Smiley is coming from but his argument in this case doesn’t hold much water for me. Aibileen and Minny may have been maids, but they weren’t stereotypical. They carried themselves with strength, dignity and purpose. There was no foolishness. Had that been the case, then I would stand right in line with Smiley on this particular topic.

But his aught is misplaced in taking Davis and Spencer to task for signing on to play those parts in the first place. While Davis admitted to staying up late at night for three months over her decision to accept the part, Spencer didn’t think twice about it as she, like Davis, was drawn to the character.

And those characters are no more demeaning to black women or to the black race as a whole than being a maid would be in real life. There’s nothing ignoble about being a maid if that’s what keeps food on the table and a roof above your head. I’d rather see a 1000 more Aibileens and Minnys on screen than another drug dealer, gang member or buffoon.

But good, bad or indifferent, all of these character types reflect the diversity within the black race. Like every other, there are good people within it and there are not-so-good people within it. It is far more important to portray them with truthfulness than not at all as if they didn’t now or ever did exist.

This was Davis’s point. It can’t be all about the positivity. As black artists, it’s important to reflect the true reality of the black experience. That includes the bad things and the uncomfortable things as well as the good things and the easy things.

I would love to see more black doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians and other upstanding character types brought to the big screen to create that balance between the good, the bad, the uncomfortable and the easy that Smiley rightfully feels is sorely needed.

But that doesn’t fall on Davis and Spencer. That falls on the industry. Smiley seemed to understand this but not to the extent that he doesn’t still implicate the actresses.

Would he or anyone else been as critical of Davis and Spencer had they or the movie not generated any awards attention at all? Since the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award and especially the Oscar itself can be seen as barometers of Hollywood acceptance, I imagine that the criticism would have then been shifted to Hollywood itself for not recognizing either of them in the first place.

So we’re going to demand the acceptance and then dictate the terms and parameters upon which we will accept it? It’s natural to want it but in this case, why seek it out in the first place? Why not just have our own terms and parameters for acceptance in place should it come to us? If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. The tide will still rise, the tide will still fall and we will still put our pants on one leg at a time.

This brings us to the most important point in the discussion, which was made by Spencer in response to Smiley talking about Hollywood not wanting to make black movies. He mentioned the recently released Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen that, despite the pedigree of producer George Lucas, no studio wanted to make.

Though Lucas eventually financed the film himself, he still couldn’t find a distributor and wound up also financing its distribution.

This is exactly what needs to happen. We need to stop waiting for Hollywood to change. It is not and it will not. Instead, we need to start writing, producing, directing, starring in and distributing our own movies. There’s no better way to have your story told than to tell it yourself. Pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux did it in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s -- long before a Hollywood studio would even consider making a so-called black movie.

Of course the question is HOW? Not everyone has the means of a George Lucas. But Micheaux didn’t have means. He just had drive and a desire to reflect black life in a non-stereotypical fashion. Tyler Perry didn’t have means, although he does now. While I don’t like most of his pious clown movies and TV shows, I give him all the credit in the world for doing his thing his way, servicing an underserved market and for keeping black actors and actresses working when many of them continue to be overlooked by an industry that favors marquee names and pretty faces.

Spencer further notes that there is plenty of black affluence in this country for resources to be pooled so that more movies like Red Tails can be made. This is key. This, coupled with the mindset to go outside a Hollywood machine that never wants to say no for fear of losing out on what could be the next big thing but also doesn’t want to say yes to anything that hasn’t already been done 8000 times before.

Of course it’s hard. Anything worth doing is going to be hard. It’s harder to go against the grain, but I’d rather swim upstream on my own terms than go with the flow on someone else’s. This is how we need to approach the business. Give ‘em first crack. If they say no, we do it ourselves. As soon as we start making our own money our own way, they will want in.

Or they’ll do their own version of what we’re doing. And it will pale in comparison.

My initial comment to this discussion was made based solely on the topic itself:

This continued argument is so annoying and provincial. Davis and Spencer weren't just playing MAIDS. They were playing people in a particular time who happened to be maids. And these were maids with strength and courage. Neither of them were mammies. They portrayed layered human beings. 

Dig deeper, people. Dig deeper. 

And do you know why these roles have been recognized for excellence? Because the PERFORMANCES were excellent.

Then someone had the audacity and the unmitigated gall to respond with a dissenting opinion:

Shouldn't you dig deeper and understand Tavis' point? Because based on what you just wrote, you don't "get it."Hattie McDaniel won because she was playing a person in a particular time who happened to be a maid.so what's different now?Tavis' point is still the same and extremely valid.

Please take your own advice and dig deeper.

Now the gloves were off. Even though Maxwell provided a workable summary of the discussion, I decided it would be best to watch it myself before crafting a response:

I don't need to agree with Tavis' point to understand his point. I get balance. I'd love to see balance. But Tavis is putting that responsibility on Davis, Spencer and other artists instead of on the industry as a whole. And that is where he and I are going to differ. 

When I first heard about "The Help", I thought about all of this. Once I saw the movie (and I hope you did too if you are going to comment) and saw the characterization and the performance, the fact that they were maids became VERY secondary to me. 

THAT is the difference. And that is MY point. I'm looking at the portrayal. You and Tavis are looking at the role. And even if you are going to look at the role, it should be noted that Aibileen and Minny are much different than Mammy. 

If the Mammy characterization is truthful to the era depicted, then that is what must be portrayed on screen whether we like it or not. I don't think that is the case, but if it was, then the movie would have to be truthful about it -- which is Davis' point. 

Beyond all that, if we want our stories told, we are going to have to figure out a way to tell these stories ourselves instead of waiting for Hollywood to wise up. It's not going to happen. 


Then he came back for more:

Ahhh, the role vs/ portryal conundrum. 

So I assume that you were just as happy to see three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard out there for a pimp" win the Oscar for best song?

The song did "portray" how hard it was out there for pimps. 

Maybe the next oscar should go to the black actor who can portray a rapper. Or a black woman portraying a video "vixen." 

And so I gave him more:

For the record, I was actually pulling for Dolly Parton to win for "Travelin' Thru" from "Transamerica". 

And if that portrayal of a rapper or a video vixen is worthy of an Oscar, then they should win one. Because I always thought the Oscar should be about the performance and not the role. Silly me.


If there are going to be complaints about the types of roles for which black actors and actresses are nominated, then we need to stop seeking validation from it. The Oscar should be the icing, not the cake. After all, we have the NAACP Image Awards and the Black Reel Awards. They may not be as prestigious or as well-known as the Oscar, but at least they recognize performances that often go overlooked by the more mainstream award groups. 

If we are going to continue to complain about the types of roles that are available for black actors and actresses, about the stories that are being told and about the way they are being told, then it’s time to take matters into our own hands. If we can’t change the system, then we need to find our own ways of working around it.

We have means now.

The full episode of Tavis Smiley with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer can be accessed here: 

Photo taken from thegrio.com.

Brought to you by Astro-Health. Your health...is in the stars.