It is one of her most memorable roles to date and landed her an Academy Award nomination. Amazingly, though, Viola Davis now wishes she hadn’t starred in The Help. The actress has candidly revealed that she regrets appearing in the movie that helped to catapult her to stardom – for one very important reason.
Davis was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina, on August 11, 1965. She grew up in Rhode Island where she developed a love of acting. The star studied theater at Rhode Island College before attending the prestigious Juilliard School in Manhattan for four years.
She got her start in Hollywood with a small appearance in the movie Substance of Fire in 1996. Davis continued to land minor roles in television series and films, as well as more significant parts in the TV shows Traveler and Century City. But she had more success on stage, where she won a Tony award in 2001 for King Hedley II.
Some years later she was cast opposite Meryl Streep in the 2008 film adaptation of the Broadway play Doubt. Davis’ one scene in the movie was powerful enough to land her an Oscar nomination – and an invitation to join the Academy. Her successes only continued and she won another Tony in 2010 for the play Fences.
Davis is now the only person of color to win an Emmy, Oscar and Tony, otherwise known as the Triple Crown of Acting. And she’s the first black female actor to be nominated for three Academy Awards, thanks in part to The Help. But that hasn’t stopped the star from feeling remorseful over the role.
The film was adapted from the 2009 novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. Set in the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, it follows a woman named Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan who writes a book about black maids living in the area. The story sees “the help” being exploited by the white families for whom they work while receiving very little pay, before they agree to speak out about their experiences of racism.
Emma Stone played Skeeter, and Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard were cast as Southern housewives. Davis and Octavia Spencer portrayed maids Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson respectively. Davis’ mother, Mary Alice, had been a maid as well as a homemaker and factory worker, and at the time of the movie’s release Davis revealed that her mom was her inspiration for the role.
“I feel like I’ve brought my mom to life; I’ve channeled her spirit,” she told the The Hollywood Reporter at the premiere of the movie. “I channeled the spirit of my grandmother, and I’ve kind of paid homage to how they’ve contributed to my life and the lives of so many people.” But in September 2018 the 53-year-old admitted that she wished she hadn’t taken on the role.
During an interview with The New York Times, she was asked if she rued turning down any parts and she flipped the query on its head. “Almost a better question is, have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted?” Davis said. “I have, and The Help is on that list.”
However, the actress was quick to explain that she loved the cast and crew that she worked with. “But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great,” she added. “The friendships that I formed are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life.”
She continued, “I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor.” Instead, Davis admitted that she struggled with the way the film concentrated more heavily on telling the story of the white characters than the black maids.
“I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard,” Davis shared. “I know Aibileen, I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom.”
She added, “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.” And Davis isn’t the only one who feels that way.
After The Help was released, it was criticized for making Stone’s character the hero. Film critic Wesley Morris called it “another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism. Skeeter enjoys all the self-discovery and all the credit.”
At the same time, Ablene Cooper filed a lawsuit against Stockett, claiming that the character of Aibileen Clark was based on her without her permission. Cooper works as a nanny and maid for Stockett’s brother and called the apparent interpretation of her in the film “embarrassing” and “emotionally upsetting.” She sued the author for $75,000 in damages, but the case was thrown out by a judge.
After Davis spoke out, Ava DuVernay echoed her sentiments. The director had worked as a publicist on the film and admitted it inspired her to create her own content. “Much respect to all involved. With that said, I understand Viola on this. Hope others do too,” she shared on Twitter. “The Help was the last film I worked on as a publicist. I quit PR. That film pushed me to make my own – for the reasons Viola states. I’m grateful for that push.”
And fans also voiced their support. “While the book covered all the characters and you got to see inside the minds and life of the maids, the movie failed terribly at it and chose to center it around the white girl,” one commenter shared. “Having read the book first this was one of my major disappointments. The maids were an afterthought in the film.”
Despite reservations about the execution of the story, Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for the role. She lost out to Meryl Streep, but Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Minny. However, Davis didn’t have long to wait for Academy recognition: in 2017 she won her first Oscar after starring in the film adaptation of Fences.
Davis has continued to make history and in 2015 became the first black actress to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her starring role on How To Get Away with Murder. She can next be seen in crime thriller Widows and will soon be portraying political activist Harriet Tubman in a biopic. While Davis admits it’s not easy to be considered “the great black female hope for women of color,” it’s a responsibility that’s important to her.
“Being that role model and picking up that baton when you’re struggling in your own life has been difficult,” she told The New York Times. “Looking at the deficit and seeing that once you’re on top, you can either take the role of leadership or you can toss it in the garbage and say, ‘I’m just out to save myself.’ I choose to be the leader.”