Actress Viola Davis has been nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of the maid Aibileen in the film The Help, set in 1960s Mississippi. But not everyone has applauded the film, which has been criticized for its portrayal of black domestic servants in the civil rights era.
Some blogs called Davis a sellout for playing the sort of character that was once the only kind that black actresses could get. Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the author of an upcoming book on racial stereotypes, told MSNBC that "what killed me was that in 2011, Viola Davis was reduced to playing a maid."
Even Tate Taylor, the film's director, has said that "the role of Aibileen, in the hands of the wrong actress, could turn into a cliche."
Davis tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she absolutely didn't see Aibileen as a character she was reduced to playing — much less a cliche.
"Or else I wouldn't have done it," she says. "You're only reduced to a cliche if you don't humanize a character. A character can't be a stereotype based on the character's occupation."
Davis says that she's played one-dimensional characters in the past, but makes clear that Aibileen – a 53-year-old maid with a 6th-grade education — doesn't fall into that category in her eyes.
"I saw her going on a journey," she says. "I saw her having humor and heart and intelligence. I saw her as having duality. And that's what I look for above anything else. Because usually, that is what's missing."
In the film, Davis' character embarks on a secret writing project with Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (played by Emma Stone) and Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer). The three women, who become unlikely friends, work secretly to expose truths about the lives of domestic workers in Mississippi.
Before filming, Davis says, she created an elaborate back story for Aibileen.
"Your job as an actor is to piece together whatever you've learned in your training, or whatever you have experienced in your life, to piece together a person," she says. "Otherwise, nothing that you're doing really has ... value. ... So I imagined everything about her. I imagined her childhood, I imagined what her dreams could have been, I imagined even what her love life was."
Part of her understanding of Aibileen's world, she says, came from her own family members, some of whom had worked as domestic servants.
"My grandmom worked as a maid for most of her life, and she worked in the tobacco and the cotton fields, whatever she could get," Davis says. "My mom would always say that [my grandmother] had employers who treated her very bad — just made her work sunup to sundown, taking care of their children as well as cleaning her homes."
Davis' mother — the oldest of 18 children — also worked in the fields and as a maid. Davis said she talked to her mother frequently about her life while creating Abileen's character and back story.
"I have to say, it takes years sometimes of constantly asking her the same question, [so] that I could finally get her to a place of comfort to reveal even a little something, some secrets," Davis says. "Talking about horrible abuses she suffered, whether they were sexual, emotional or physical," she says. "[She revealed] horrible memories."
Davis' mother recently told her that she couldn't eat pork, because she remembers a particularly horrific incident in a slaughterhouse.
"One day, she said she saw a pig, and they put him in a huge pot of scalding hot oil, and the pig was still alive," she says. "And she remembers the screaming of the pig. And she started telling the story, and she couldn't finish. She said she could not get those screams out of her head.
"And that is the case with many memories of women that lived in that time period – that you just sucked it in. It's part of our history as African-Americans. It's one of the reasons why I loved Aibileen, because I saw all of that life in her, all those repressed memories that she couldn't put into words. But they were there, and they just sat on her."
On the life that she imagined for Aibileen to create her backstory
"The life I imagined for her really was rooted in her education. She has a 6th-grade education, and when she was in the 6th grade, her teacher told her she was smart and she had to drop out of school to help her mother with the bills. And the teacher told her, 'You're my best student, so in order to keep your mind alive and awake, you need to write everyday.' So ever since Aibileen was 12 — she's 51 in the script — she's been writing. Because I know what that feels like, I just imagined that she wanted to be a writer. ... I think she felt that her writing was really potent, which is why she wrote down all of her prayers. She felt like every time she wrote them down, they came true."
On creating an elaborate emotional history for the character
"You cannot ever imagine what someone's sex life is by looking at them. I always find that probably the most held-back and repressed person, probably has the most wicked thoughts going on. And if you've read [The Help], one thing that you notice about Aibileen is that 98 percent of who she was, took place in an internal dialogue. She was not the gregarious, demonstrative person — not like Minnie or Skeeter. She absolutely was more repressed. Therefore, I had to create a really rich emotional life for her, because that's where she lived."
On women like her mother and grandmother not talking about their pain
"I think there is a feeling that you just have to live with it. There's no alternative to life. It is a different mentality. It's not a 20th-century so-called liberated-woman mentality. It's a mentality born out of knowing one's place, knowing what one has to do in order to get by and get over."
On crying in Doubt and on-screen
"When you're watching yourself on screen, it's different from acting the scene. When you're watching yourself, it's about vanity — its all about how you look, what's not looking right — the lips, the lighting, how big you look in that coat, how you're holding the umbrella. When I first saw the cut, I remember I went back to my house and laid in bed for two weeks until my husband finally said, 'V, you gotta get up.' Doing that [crying] scene [with Meryl Streep in Doubt], it's two people in absolute conflict, you're not so aware of what you look like until the scene is done — it's just two pit bulls in conflict with each other."
On how people perceive her
"I can go into an audition with my makeup and my hair and my lashes and come out with these roles that you say I have. Which goes into the area of perception, and how people perceive black women of a certain hue, and when I say certain hue, I mean black women who are darker than a paper bag. And I'm a dark-skinned black woman who is 46 years old. And I don't know about you, but when I go to see movies, I don't see a lot of women like me in glamorous roles. Not in any mainstream movies, and inevitably when I say that people mention one person — but usually just one. I don't see a lot of narratives written ... where a woman who looks like me gets to be beautiful and sexualized and upwardly mobile, middle-class, funny, quirky. They're very seldom written."