‘I betrayed myself, and my people’

Viola Davis is Vanity Fair’s latest cover star, and she’s using the opportunity to address important issues like race and how Black stories are told in Hollywood, particularly when it comes to the legacy of the film that helped gain her mainstream attention.

In her feature, the Oscar-, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress again expressed her regret in taking the role of Aibileen Clark in the 2011 film The Help. Her comments come as the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired many to revisit the film making it one of the most-watched movies on Netflix. Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for playing a Black maid in 1963 Mississippi who helps Emma Stone’s journalist character expose racism in the community. The film, and the book on which it was based, have been accused of perpetuating the “white savior” stereotype while marginalizing Black characters.

“Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity,” Davis explained. “They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but … it’s catering to the white audience. 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.

“There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help,” she continued. “But 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],” Davis says. The Help, like so many other movies, was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”

Davis has always been vocal about the lack of diversity in Hollywood and recently went viral when a clip of her from the 2018 Women in the World event talking about the inequities between her and actress Meryl Streep despite their similar credentials resurfaced. In Vanity Fair, she also named Emma Stone, Reese Witherspoon and Kristen Stewart as other white actresses that have had “a wonderful role for each stage of their lives, that brought them to the stage they are now.” But she argues that same cannot be said for actors of color.

“There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known,” Davis said.

The actress also addressed the struggles dark-skinned women face against the societal pressure that usually pushes Eurocentric beauty standards. Davis admitted that her mother and sisters telling her that she was pretty helped boost her self-esteem when society was not reenforcing that message.

“Who’s telling a dark-skinned girl that she’s pretty? Nobody says it … The dark-skinned Black woman’s voice is so steeped in slavery and our history,” she told the magazine. “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. I did not find my worth on my own.”

And Davis definitely radiates that confidence in her history-making cover, the first to be shot by a Black photographer, Dario Calmese, in Vanity Fair’s history. Though the cover and feature photos have been met with widespread praise, particularly for the attention to flattering lighting, which so many dark-skinned Black people do not receive, Davis knows there is so much more to be done.

“They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers,” she said. “But that’s a lot of magazines, that’s a lot of beauty campaigns. There’s a real absence of dark-skinned Black women. When you couple that with what’s going on in our culture, and how they treat Black women, you have a double whammy. You are putting us in a complete cloak of invisibility.”

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