Viola Davis had some reservations about appearing in "The Help." They started with the title.
"People have very strong ideas about black women playing maids," said the Oscar-nominated actress. "Playing a maid in 2011 -- there's a lot of stigma attached to it. And I didn't want to play into any of that."
"That" has been a huge part of the "Help" phenomenon since Kathryn Stockett's bestseller-to-be appeared in bookstores in 2009. Many people loved its story of black maids and white well-to-do women finding common ground in 1961 Mississippi; some found it another example of the paler folk co-opting the black experience. Which leads to Davis' other problem.
"I was afraid of it," she said. "I went in with a lot of trepidation, because I felt a huge responsibility to myself, to African-Americans, to my mom. To all the women I knew who lived their whole lives without anyone asking them about their dreams.
"It's not often you get a script like this. And when you do, you want to make it good."
How well they did will be judged when the film opens Wednesday, by audiences who will likely be familiar with the Stockett book: In it, women black and white, employees and employers, come to terms with the late-era Jim Crow South, and each other. ("It's a mixture of everybody," Davis said. "I hope that fact is not lost on people.") At the center of the story is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a privileged college graduate who returns to 1961 Mississippi wanting to be a writer, and looking for a subject -- which she finds in Aibileen Clark (Davis), a domestic who has spent her entire adult life caring for white people's children.
The courage to speak
While Skeeter realizes she has a topic for her book, it takes Aibileen's courage -- and the monstrous behavior of a local troublemaker named Hilly Holbrook (Dallas Bryce Howard) -- to get the other local black women talking, for a book that eventually will be titled "The Help."
Also in the cast are Allison Janney, Jessica Chastain ("The Tree of Life") and Octavia Spencer, whose Minny -- Aibileen's cantankerous colleague -- can be seen as poised on the fulcrum of history: Constrained by tradition, but too pugnacious to behave, she is, in a word, a firecracker. But Spencer says it's Aibileen who really moves the water.
"Both of them are nonconformists," said Spencer ("Dinner for Schmucks"). "But Minny doesn't see the need to be proactive about making people aware of the struggle. Aibileen is much more philosophical and is definitely the catalyst. She wants to tell the truth and not have others go through what they endured."
"The Help" seems destined to roil the seas of sociopolitical discourse. While both Davis and Spencer insist that the story is more about relationships than race, there's no getting around the black-white schism at its center. So the question will be asked: Jim Crow is a thing of the past, and few would argue race relations haven't improved since 1961, so does a period piece like "The Help" somehow imply that things are all better?
"Even though we've come a long way, there are still oppressed minorities, haves and have-nots, and injustice," said Ricky Strauss, president of the socially progressive Participant Media, which produced the film with its film-funding partner, Imagenation Abu Dhabi. "That's why we think it's so inspirational. It speaks to relevant themes and I think it defines our mission to create entertainment that inspires change."
Davis believes a lot of people today simply don't know what happened. "We learn about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and that's the extent of civil rights education," she said. "I think we need to revisit it because freedoms came at a great cost. People today see it all as rights, but not that it came at the cost of lives."
Spencer said she had "no reservations whatsoever" about being in the film. "I would get to work with Tate Taylor, Brunson Green and Allison Janney," she said. "And to be honest, there aren't that many roles for black character actresses, which is what I am. And there aren't many roles that are this fleshed-out and pivotal. It was a no-brainer -- if they were into having me as Minny, I was into being Minny."
Not a 'tabloid girl'
Davis, a double Tony and Drama Desk award winner ("King Hedley II," "Fences") and an Oscar nominee for her eight-minute scene in "Doubt" (opposite Meryl Streep), is not, she concedes, "a tabloid girl."
"So as an actress of color, the only time people hear about what you're doing is when you're opposite Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise" -- as she was last year in "Eat Pray Love" and "Knight and Day" -- "or Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock" -- which she will be, in next year's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." At the moment, she's appearing in the David Schwimmer-directed shocker "Trust," shooting "Steel Town" with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter, and waiting to see what becomes of "The Help."
"I kind of went into it thinking it would be a chick flick," Davis said with a little laugh. "You know, because the book seemed targeted toward women. But I'm seeing men and women of all races affected by it."
If it does as well, she said, "it really will be a testament to the power of great storytelling."
From Mammy to Benson, domestics with depth
BY JOHN ANDERSON, Special to Newsday
The history of the domestic/servant/housekeeper/maid (and, occasionally, slave) in American entertainment has mostly meant African-American characters, demeaning characterizations and perpetuated stereotypes. And yet, the way these characters have often been used -- as either the comedic conscience of the principal characters, or as a Greek chorus commenting on the often inane actions of the leads -- has provided a wide and nuanced window into our nation's troubled racial psychology. The following are some of the more significant instances of people working for other people, and being their moral superiors.
MAMMY ("Gone With the Wind," 1939) -- Hattie McDaniel had made dozens of films before 1939, but she is synonymous with the O'Haras' head-shaking house slave, a role that made her the first black performer to win an Academy Award. She may have been a menial, but she's also the heart of the movie.
DELILAH JOHNSON ("Imitation of Life," 1934) -- Louise Beavers played the hardworking housemaid who helps Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) become a success in the pancake business (posing as a sort of Aunt Jemima on the box), while her light-skinned daughter (Fredi Washington) tries to pass for white, breaking Mom's heart. The melodrama was remade in 1959 by the great Douglas Sirk, with Lana Turner, Sandra Dee and Juanita Moore in the Beavers role (this time called Annie).
BERENICE SADIE BROWN ("The Member of the Wedding," 1950, '52, '82 and '97) -- Carson McCullers' 1946 novel about 12-year-old Frankie Addams, who dreams of going away with her brother and his bride on their honeymoon, became a hit play in 1950, with Ethel Waters playing Frankie's closest friend, the maid Berenice. Waters also played the role in the 1952 film adaptation; Pearl Bailey reprised it on television in 1982, and Alfre Woodard played her, again on TV, in 1997.
BEULAH ("Beulah," 1950-53) -- The "queen of the household" was noteworthy for being the first black lead in a television sitcom. Ethel Waters played her, McDaniel played her and Louise Beavers played her before the show ended in 1953. Perhaps no one will be surprised that Beulah (who had been a supporting character on the old "Fibber McGee and Molly" radio show) was originated by a white male actor, Marlin Hurt.
BENSON ("Soap," 1977-81) -- OK he's not a maid. But by the late '70s, a black domestic was a pretty loaded symbol, and Robert Guillaume played the caustic butler Benson for all he was worth. He eventually got his own show, but pretty much still had to play a caustic butler.