So Viola lost. At the beginning of Oscar Sunday I posted this statement on Facebook: "Whoopi Goldberg is mad Viola Davis turned in the same performance Whoopi turned in twenty two years ago in "Long Walk Home". I got a couple of "likes" and a few agreeable comments. I'd been nervous to post the status update convinced that there'd be some backlash. For the most part, Viola Davis' performance in "The Help" has been described as transcendent, Oscar worthy, miraculous, revelatory. I disagree.
I could have also posted "Regina Taylor is mad Viola Davis turned in the same performance Regina turned in twenty one years ago in "I'll Fly Away". This isn't a criticism of Viola Davis' performance. Her characterization was fine. She connected the dots and delivered a competent perfunctory rendition of a maid in the 1960's; just like Whoopi and Regina did. Just like any competent contemporary black actress would when given the task of playing a 1960's maid. (Think stoicism, pride, straight-backed humility, and flashes of fire)
Viola Davis campagined hard the past few months vying to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. I saw her tell Nightline, The View, and anyone else who would listen that at first she was weary of playing yet another maid in Hollywood until she realized she could humanize the character and that it was practically her duty to do so. That is quite the cliche. It pretty much rivals the old "hooker with a heart of gold" adage. It's okay to play a stereotype as long as you "humanize" them. Whatever.
I was not offended by "The Help" as many people were. There was anger because the Civil Rights Movement was told from the perspective of a white person. It was as if these folks hadn't seen "Long Walk Home" (Civil Rights) "Glory" (substitute Civil Rights for the Civil War) "Cry Freedom" (substitute Civil Rights for Apartheid) or pretty much any other 1990's movie supposedly about black people. The whole "black people problems" through white person's eyes is as overdone as what I like to call the "Green Mile Effect" where magical black people solve white people's problems for them. (Think Will Smith in "The Legend of Bagger Vance"or Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile")
When I saw "The Help" all I thought was, "Is that it?" I wasn't surprised. I wasn't angry. I didn't care. I thought the movie was utterly benign.
I would have been annoyed if Viola Davis won last night. The right actress won. "The Iron Lady" is a bad movie but Meryl Streep is astonishing in it. Viola Davis was not astonishing in "The Help". She added nothing new to the archetype of the maid. We have seen this maid in the hands of many black actresses. She did what would be expected within the confines of the role. And I don't blame her for playing the part. She's been in Hollywood forever and it's the first time she had a lead. She did what she needed to do.
The fact that the Academy didn't let guilt over the lack of African American roles lead them to vote for Viola gives me hope. It means that black actors can be recognized but we don't have to be placated. It means that it is not going to be reinforced that the "humanized maid" is the only character we will be asked to play.
As a fellow Facebook friend (Tamara Kerrill Field) said, "I want Viola to win for an independent film written just for her." Hopefully her nomination will allow for that someday soon.
And congratulations Meryl. You kicked some ass.