Viola Davis conveys, “I am not a maid.”

27 February 2012

I’m sorry she didn’t win, but I have to pause for a moment to gaze at her approvingly — because watching her on the red carpet at the Academy Awards last night was one of those “one of these things is not like the others” moments.

The Help was dogged by controversy, spearheaded by a number of academics and intellectuals who decried the fact that black actresses were still appearing onscreen as maids. One academic wrote recently, “Really?” and pointed out the following:

  • 1940: Hattie McDaniel Best Supporting Actress, as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind
  • 1950, Ethel Waters, nominee, Best Supporting Actress category as Granny, a washer woman and domestic in Pinky.
  • 1960, Juanita Moore, nominee Best Supporting Actress as maid Annie, in Imitation of Life 
  • 2012: Octavia Spencer wins BAFTA Best Supporting Actress as maid Minnie, in The Help, Academy Award nominee Best Supporting Actress
  • 2012: Viola Davis, nominee Best Actress as maid Abileen in The Help.

Davis got an earful of these complaints about her acting choice from the radio host Tavis Smiley; the wonderful Melissa Harris-Perry also held forth on the topic of how bad the film was.

So when Davis appeared at the Awards last night with red hair and this green dress that shows off her gorgeous dark skin so brilliantly, I did a double take. As I should have. As I hope everyone did. With this look she sang out not only that she is not a fucking maid, but that she’s going to make her own decisions about her career and her self.

In that sea of skinny white girls all wearing whites or reds or blacks, Davis wore kelly green. She looks like the actress she is, hitting her mid-40s and possibly a terrifically productive period of her career; this look ignores the doubters who questioned her decision to take this role. This look screams, I am my own actress, and I have my own beauty; when I played a maid that one time I hit that role out of the park. I can hardly wait to see her again on both screens and red carpets.

4 Responses to “Viola Davis conveys, “I am not a maid.””

  1. I have to say, as much as I love Meryl Streep, our Viola was robbed!

  2. servetus Says:

    I wanted to say, *and* she also avoids another frequent classification assigned to African American women who appear in public in high register dressy clothes. She looks really classy here, I thought. Then I wondered if I were thinking what I thought in response to my own class and race prejudices. As if I were thinking that it was unusual that an African American woman would be dressed to kill in a completely appropriate way for the event. Anyway, not liking what it says about me that I ventured down down this thought road, but loving the way she is dressed here, whatever it means.

    • Didion Says:

      But I think you’re exactly right here — after appearing as a frumpy maid who’s ostensibly older than Davis is in real life (Davis is 46, I believe), her drop-dead gorgeousness here does make you look twice. I said to my friends last night, “Is that Viola Davis??!?!” with my mouth open.

      I just love her outside-the-box dress choice; I also love the way her beautiful dark skin shows off how strong-looking she is. Tavis Smiley: try to mess with THIS goddess and tell her what roles to take.

  3. rhulshofschmidt Says:

    I agree – she’s an amazing presence on-screen and off. I find the shrieking about this film a bit disingenuous. It is shameful that certain demographics get pigeonholed in the Oscars. (Women in general can complain that by award stats they are mostly actors and prostitutes…) Focusing on the handful of domestic roles nominated over 84 years is a bit insulting on two fronts, however. It diminishes the nominations (and wins) of people like Halle Berry and Mo’nique. Perhaps worse, this year, it takes away from two women who took on roles that explored WHY they were maids and what that meant for their lives. The film was certainly imperfect, but let’s not take away from the great — and meaningful — performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

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