When “The Help” hit theaters last year, there was an enormous amount of discussion about it in the feminist and progressive blogosphere. It was harshly criticized for its ahistorical depiction of the Jim Crow South, and for its implication that racism is a thing of the past (and that it is over largely thanks to the efforts of white people).
People were divided about whether or not to see it, and those who did see it were divided about whether or not Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were to be commended for inarguably great performances or critiqued for taking roles as maids.
At the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards on Sunday night, “The Help” won Best Ensemble, and Viola Davis accepted the award on behalf of the cast. Though many of us have complicated and conflicting feelings about the movie, Davis’s message was crystal clear.
“The stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It’s all of our burden. All of us,” she said. “And I don’t care how ordinary you may feel. All of us can inspire change. Every single one of us.” Full transcript below the jump.
Davis also won Best Actress, and in her acceptance speech for that award, she offered words of encouragement to students at Rhode Island’s Segue Institute of Learning, a middle school where almost every student is Black or Latino, and the majority are poor. “Dream big and dream fierce,” she said.
Davis is picking up a lot of awards this year, and she and Octavia Spencer will most likely take home Academy Awards for their performances. Which means they’re also doing a lot of talking about the politics of race in Hollywood, especially Davis. Speaking on a round table hosted by The Hollywood Reporter last week, she explained how hard it was for Black actresses, especially older and darker-skinned ones, to find work. And in the press room at the SAG Awards, she was asked about how playing the character of Aibileen affected her personally, and her response was similarly political.
“During the course of promoting this movie, and having to defend my choices of playing a maid in 1960s Mississippi in 2011, I’ve had to find my voice,” she said. “I’ve had to find my voice as a woman of color, an artist, and I never thought that I would ever be put in a position like that. I’ve always kind of been in the background, the character actor doing four scenes. And all of a sudden I was being put to the test, kind of being pushed against the wall. And that made me feel what Aibileen, Minnie, all of them felt in finding their own voices, and not keeping silent any more, and not staying in the background.”
You know, we arrived on the set in July in 2010 with such heavy loads on our shoulders, such great expectations were already there for this book that was so beloved. And it’s been such a labor of love, and they say that the ensemble is just a group effort, just brought together to create a singular effect, and all these actors on this stage gave up their ego and were able to just work. And it’s been such a joy. Just to be a part of this cast. And me and Octavia, we have merged into Aibileen and Minnie, by the way. And I just want to say that the stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It’s all of our burden. All of us. And I don’t care how ordinary you may feel. All of us can inspire change. Every single one of us. Thank you.