Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Viola Davis and the Black Woman’s Burden

Viola Davis, who gives an indelible performance in The Help, is one of the frontrunners for this year’s Academy Award for Best Actress. Davis is the daughter and the granddaughter of strong, stoic women who earned their living in domestic service. But she’s discovered on the talk-show circuit that not everyone is wholeheartedly proud of her for playing a maid. Tavis Smiley, for one, shared his ambivalence that she was nominated for a role that puts her in Hattie McDaniel territory Said Smiley, who specializes in African-American issues on his PBS show, “I want you to win, but I’m ambivalent about what you’re winning for.”

The topic came up again when Davis was interviewed by Terry Gross on one of my favorite radio programs, Fresh Air. Davis told Gross in no uncertain terms that when she took on the role of a Southern housekeeper named Aibileen she was by no means reduced to playing a cliché, “or else I wouldn’t have done it. You're only reduced to a cliché if you don't humanize a character. A character can't be a stereotype based on the character's occupation.” Early in her career, Davis sometimes played two-dimensional women who raised no hackles with progressive viewers because they held upscale jobs. Today, as an award-winning stage and screen actress who has some choice in the parts she accepts, she looks for opportunities to explore a character in depth, whether she be a judge or a maid. Her goal is to find the fundamental humanity in any role she plays, however humble the character’s circumstances.

Biographers too are committed to exploring the basic humanity of their subjects. Beginning with the facts of an actual human life, a good biographer shapes a story that is complex, poetic, and true on the very deepest level. I’m proud to be a member of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, which will be holding its third annual Compleat Biographer conference on the USC campus from May 18 through 20. Because we’re in the middle of Black History Month, now is a good time to segue from Viola Davis to this year’s BIO award recipient, Arnold Rampersad, who will deliver the official keynote address on Saturday, May 19. A professor of English at Stanford, Rampersad is the esteemed biographer of such iconic African-Americans as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and Ralph Ellison. These men came from modest backgrounds –- Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers -- and yet their contribution to American life cannot be overestimated.

Because this year’s BIO conference is the first to be held in Los Angeles, several of its panels will explore the Hollywood experience. I’ve personally organized a panel entitled “Pursuing Hollywood’s Past” that will feature several leading showbiz biographers, and I’ll moderate “How Dare You? How to Write An Unauthorized Celebrity Bio and Live to Tell the Tale.” A session on the writing of the biopic will feature Hollywood luminary Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar-winner for the screenplay of Milk.

Hollywood of course loves biopics, which is why several of this year’s Oscar nominees (including Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams) are up for playing actual historic figures. But Viola Davis belongs in their company, even if she’s not portraying a prime minister or a movie star. As far as I’m concerned, it’s equally impressive to play a maid whose life draws on the dreams and struggles of generations of real women. Viola Davis’s mother and grandmother didn’t talk much about their daily woes. But in bringing those woes to the screen, Davis emerges with her human dignity triumphantly intact.


  1. Absolutely - and how shortsighted for these reviewers to skip any truth that Ms. Davis mined in her performance and simply rail that it's embarrassing that she is nominated for playing a maid. Wow. I quite enjoyed her answer to Terry Gross. Congratulations on your panel and moderating - and best of luck with both! Please post highlights when you can!

  2. No one seemed to think it was embarrassing for Anthony Hopkins and Charlize Theron to portray serial killers. In Denzel Washington's most recent Oscar-winning role, he played a brutal, corrupt cop. Seems like black women are being held to a standard that's illogical and unfair.

    (Thanks for the congratulations, by the way. I should add that the general public is cordially welcome to attend the BIO conference -- and it should be terrific!)