Viola Davis Says She Feels Like She 'Betrayed' Herself by Starring in 'The Help'

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Viola Davis is explaining her regret over starring in The Help. The 54-year-old actress covers Vanity Fair's July/August issue and reveals why she accepted a role in the 2011 movie in the first place, and why now, in hindsight, she wishes she hadn't.

The film follows the lives of a group of black maids in Mississippi in the 1960s with Davis portraying a maid named Aibileen Clark. The role earned her Oscar and Golden Globe nominations as well as two Screen Actors Guild awards.

That kind of critical success is something Davis could've only dreamed of when she first signed on to the project because she was a "journeyman actor trying to get in[to]" the industry.

While her experience on set was a positive one -- she worked alongside actresses including Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain and Allison Janney -- Davis says the flim was "created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism."

"I cannot tell you the love I have for these women, and the love they have for me. But with any movie -- are people ready for the truth?" she questions.

While Davis says "there’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help," her issues with the project remain.

"There’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth]," she says.

That truth, Davis says, is that The Help wasn't made for the people it's about, but rather it was "catering to the white audience."

"Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity. They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but… it’s catering to the white audience," she says.. "The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. Then they leave the movie theater and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were."

Davis first expressed her complicated feelings about The Help in a 2018 interview with The New York Times, admitting that the role is one she regrets taking.

"I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny [Jackson]. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom," Davis explained of her and Spencer's characters. "And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie."

Viola Davis
Dario Calmese/Vanity Fair

Her regret over The Help isn't the only issue she's chosen to speak out about publicly. In her interview with Vanity Fair -- which features the magazine's first cover shot by a Black photographer, Dario Calmese -- Davis also discusses unfair expectations for women of color.

"We know as women, when you speak up, you’re labeled a bitch -- immediately. Unruly -- immediately," she says. "Just as a woman. As a woman of color, there is very, very, very little you have to do. All you have to do is maybe roll your eyes, and that’s it." 

It's by those standards that, Davis says, Hollywood focuses on "fitting in and squelching your own authentic voice." Because of that truth, it's not always easy for Davis to speak her mind.

"[I'll think,] 'Should I say it? Should I not? What’s a good hashtag? Is there going to be some kind of silent backlash, where I just stop getting phone calls? Stop getting jobs?'" she says.

Despite those questions, Davis makes sure to speak out about injustices because acting is just one part of who she is.

"My work is not all of me. I used to say when I was younger, 'Acting is not what I do, it’s who I am,'" she recalls. "I look back at myself like, 'What the hell were you talking about?'"

That self-confidence wasn't something that Davis always had. In fact, when she was growing up poor in a home with six children and an alcoholic and sometimes violent father, Davis rarely spoke her mind.

"When I was younger I did not exert my voice because I did not feel worthy of having a voice," she says, before revealing that the self-doubt left her wetting the bed until she was 14.

She overcame her uncertainty, though, with the help of her sisters and mother.

"[They] looked at me and said I was pretty," she says. "Who’s telling a dark-skinned girl that she’s pretty? Nobody says it. I’m telling you, nobody says it. The dark-skinned Black woman’s voice is so steeped in slavery and our history."

"If we did speak up, it would cost us our lives. Somewhere in my cellular memory was still that feeling -- that I do not have the right to speak up about how I’m being treated, that somehow I deserve it," she says. "I did not find my worth on my own."

Watch the video below for more on Davis.

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