Friday, February 10, 2012

Oh the Layers! Tavis Smiley, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer talk about The Help

Tavis Smiley brought Academy Award-nominated actresses Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis onto his show to talk about the film The Help.

As I previously wrote, I recently watched The Help for the first time and was pleasantly surprised by my response to it. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't recognize the problematic aspects of the film.

That's why I was so interested to see Smiley's interview with Spencer and Davis, an interview that gets right to the heart of the issue and tackles it head-on (with respect and nuance). You can watch it and read the transcript here.

Basically, Smiley admits to having ambivalent feelings about the film (though he hopes that both women win the award in their respective categories). Davis jumps in with a pretty scathing commentary of her own, telling Smiley that his viewpoint "is absolutely destroying the Black artist" by limiting their roles to only characters deemed "fit" by the collective rather than allowing them a full range of expression. She goes on to explain her view by saying "We as artists cannot be politicians. We as artists can only be truth-tellers."

Ah-ha. This is a fight over truth. Who gets to tell it? Whose version will prevail? Who gets to decide how truth is determined?

And this particular debate highlights a lot of the problems with truth. See, if we are talking about a single text, truth may be debatable, but at least the space in which to find it is somewhat contained. If there is a single text, we look at that text through the lens of its author, its audience, and its content. We determine what message the author intended to send, what message the audience received, and how that message was conveyed. We make judgments about the success or failure of that message, and we decide whether we believe the text to be valid. As complicated as that process can be, it is much, much simpler than what is happening in this piece.

For one, we're talking about a lot of different texts, each with their own audience, author, and context. Though this is not an exhaustive list, here are some of the texts I see in play in this interview:

  • The book The Help
    • As Spencer points out in the interview, the fact that the source text is written by a white woman is problematic for many people. 
    • The source text has also been problematic for its treatment of dialect. 
    • Davis also talks about how the book establishes a much richer character in Aibileen: "Her life is internal dialogue, if you’ve read the book, and you know, internal dialogue, by the time it reaches the screen, most of it is cut" and how that impacted her work as an actress. 
  • The film The Help
    • The film in and of itself is where I focused my criticism for my personal reaction, and--in my opinion--the film is very well done. 
    • The film brings problems like dialect and physical stereotypes into a new realm by giving them visual and audio representations. 
  • The performance of the actresses
    • The actresses make clear in this interview that they see their individual performances as texts in their own rights. These are performances that they're adding to their career repertoires. Every part that they play shapes the way they will be viewed by their audience as a whole. 
    • As Spencer points out, the text of actress is impacted by race, gender, body type: "There is a limit of roles that are out there for African American women, and women of a certain size, women of a certain age. There are so many different categories that we have to contend with." Davis adds that skin tone also plays a role. 
  • The Academy Awards as text
    • The awards ceremony is a text of its own. These women winning awards for their performances means something beyond their performance in the film (which is why Smiley roots for their wins even as he criticizes the film itself). 
    • The audience for the Academy Awards is different than the audience for the film, and even when the audience members overlap, their purpose in watching is different. 
    • The Academy Awards comes with its own history and context. As Smiley mentions when he talks about Denzel Washington winning an Oscar for his performance in Training Day, that history is racially problematic. (Black actors and actresses are often awarded for performing in negative roles and rarely awarded for performances in positive ones.)
    • During the interview, the actresses spend a lot of time talking about white actors and actresses who have won playing characters with flaws (Charlize Theron for Monster and Anthony Hopkins for Silence of the Lambs, for instance). The women use this as evidence that requiring only noble characters from their performances is limiting and unfair. 
  • Black cinema in general
    • The history of black cinema also contextualizes this film. Which films have been critically acclaimed, which have been ignored (Smiley cites George Lucas' inability to get funding for Red Tails), and which have been poorly received all play a role. 
    • Davis also criticizes contemporary black writers and producers as propagating stereotypes: "I’m a dark-skinned African American actress, okay, and I would say that I have had so many African American artists in my house having the same conversation. I’ve read all the scripts that they’ve given me, young writers saying, 'I’ve got the ultimate role for you, Ms. Davis, because I see you.'I would say 99.9 percent of them are all urban ghetto mothers who look highly unattractive and they all speak Ebonics. They are probably far more insulting than even some of the roles given to me by white industry people."
I think that the reason Smiley, Davis, and Spencer disagree is because they're actually evaluating different things. 

It seems like Smiley's main analysis lies within black cinema and the Academy Awards. The authors of those texts are primarily privileged people (largely white men) who control what gets funded, what gets distributed, and what gets awarded. 

Davis' primary text seems to be the roles that she is given to perform. She sees herself as limited by a view that says she must act as a representative for an entire race of people by only performing in noble roles, and she sees those roles that are deemed acceptable as stilted, drained of humanity, and devoid of the truth and "messiness" of real life. They don't push her to test her acting abilities or allow her to grow as an artist. 

Spencer's primary text is--similar to Davis'--the roles she is given to perform as an actress, but unlike Davis (who admits to agonizing over taking the role because of how it would be received and what her responsibility was to the audience), Spencer shifts the responsibility of interpretation almost entirely onto the viewer: i"if I’m going to go to law school, who’s going to tell me what case not to take? If I’m going to be a doctor, who’s going to tell me what patient not to take?
You cannot live to please everyone else. You have to edify, educate and fulfill your own dreams and destiny, and hope that whatever your art is that you’re putting out there, if it’s received, great, I respect you for receiving it.
If it’s not received, great, I respect you for not."

Personally, I respect and see merit in every single one of those positions. The problem is that it's nearly impossible to talk about the actual "text" that's being examined in this interview because it would have to include all of those different texts (and texts I haven't even identified). It would have to include multiple audiences (the readers of the book, the viewers of the film, the viewers of the Academy Awards, the viewers of previous Academy Award winners, the viewers of previous films in the black cinema canon, etc.). It would have to include multiple authors (Kathryn Stockett as author of the book; the writers, producers, and directors of the film; the actresses who starred in the film and thus "wrote" their performances; those in charge of production and distribution companies; writers, producers, and directors of previous Academy Award winners, etc.). That's too large to handle. It doesn't even make sense to try to talk about all of that at once. In order to make it manageable, we have to rope off some piece or pieces of the text and claim it as the territory we're examining for a certain type of truth. 

But at the same time, there will always be someone else who has roped off a different set of texts. Someone else will have a very reasonable challenge based on that different text. 

So how do we decide? How do we decide which texts to examine? And how do we make sure we're looking at the places our readings intersect to make sure we're talking about the same thing? 

1 comment:

  1. As a black woman of Caribbean descent, I was initially disappointed that THESE are the roles that these 2 wonderful actresses get recognized for. Constantly, it seems black actors only get accolades for playing into stereotypes (Denzel Washington-the criminal, Halle Berry - abusive, poor mother). However I give much respect for these women playing the role. Viola Davis made a good point in an interview once, stating that her own mother was a maid. A hardworking, clean and decent job there is nothing wrong about being a maid. And it is important to recognize that it is not just middle class or rich people who deserve to have their stories told.