erik lundegaard

Viola Davis Lays the Smackdown on Tavis Smiley

I discovered this via Nathaniel Roger's Film Experience site.

Seems professional provacateur Tavis Smiley had Oscar nominees Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer of “The Help” on his show earllier this month. Quickly in the conversation, Smiley brings up his problem with “The Help.” It amounts to “You're playing maids, the same role that Hattie McDaniel played in 1939's 'Gone with the Wind,' and haven't we progressed any further than that in 72 years?” He brings up the Academy honoring Denzel Washington for playing, not Malcolm X or Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, but the thuggish cop of “Training Day.” Why can't more positive, more uplifting portrayals be honored?

Here's Viola Davis' response:

That mindset... is absolutely destroying the black artist. The black artist cannot live in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity. Humanity is messy. People are messy. Caucasian actors know that. They understand that. They understand that when you bring a human being to life you show all the flaws as well as the beauty. We, as African American artists, are more concerned with image and message and not execution. Which is why every time you see our images they've been watered down to a point where they are not realistic at all. It's like all of our humanity has been washed out. We as artists cannot be politicians. We as artists can only be truth tellers.

Amen amen amen.

Here's the full interview.

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Posted at 04:58 PM on Wed. Feb 15, 2012 in category Movies  


Extra-strength UncleVinny wrote:

I feel like there's some middle ground here. Hollywood likes to green-light movies with African-Americans in subordinate roles, and is (as I think you were pointing out last week? or was I reading that somewhere else...) shy about supporting a director like Spike Lee whose art may be a little more confrontational. I don't know if that's the point Tavis Smiley was trying to make.

Comment posted on Wed. Feb 15, 2012 at 05:20 PM

Extra-strength UncleVinny wrote:

I really like Viola's comment about wanting to open a script and seeing a “living, breathing character” on the page. I think that's always tough for Hollywood to put in a script, but it's even tougher for them when it's a black character... perhaps because they're worried about reaction from some parts of the black community, perhaps because of the (non)reaction to films like “Pariah” (which I skipped), which tried it.

So, after watching the video, I'm really not sure that Tavis' mindset is “destroying the black artist”. I think his heart is in the right place; it's completely OK to always bring up Hollywood's selective green-lighting, and at the same time celebrate the fantastic performances by black actors regardless of the roles they have to choose from.

Comment posted on Wed. Feb 15, 2012 at 05:42 PM

Erik wrote:

The mindset that denigrates complexity in favor of purity is nothing but problematic. Tavis wriggled around it a bit, but this is the argument he's making in the beginning.

OR at the least he's making the argument that the Academy, which is predominately white, honors black actors for playing less-than-exemplary characters, and that there's a hint of racism about this. But I don't quite buy that, either. The reason Denzel didn't win for Malcolm X is because Al Pacino didn't win for “The Godfather” or “Serpico” or “The Godfather Part II” or “Dog Day Afternoon,” and the Academy was playing make-up late in the game. And the reason he won for “Training Day,” it can be argued, is because Russell Crowe was verbally abusive at the BAFTA Awards and it turned off Academy voters who might otherwise have given him his second award for “A Beautiful Mind.” Who knows? The Academy has no single mind, just a lot of different and divergent opinions.

Comment posted on Wed. Feb 15, 2012 at 05:58 PM

Erik wrote:

As for the maid/maid argument, well, anyone who doesn't see the difference between Hattie McDaniel's portrayal and Viola Davis' isn't paying attention.

Plus it's an argument that can always be made, no matter the year or portrayal. “Here we are in 2059, 120 years after Hattie, and yet...” blah blah blah.

Comment posted on Wed. Feb 15, 2012 at 06:03 PM

Extra-strength UncleVinny wrote:

I don't think he was denigrating complexity, he just wants complex characters to be celebrated when they're at least slightly more powerful than they are weak. He's pointing out (for the zillionth time, yes) that Hollywood (and ticket-buying America) are still really racist, but gets called a “provocateur” for it, and gets told that he's “destroying the black artist”.

It's not strictly about which actors get awards, either. It has to do with green-lighting, and the conversation goes on for some time about how impossible it was for George Lucas to get anyone to help 'Red Tails' get to audiences. I don't understand the strong rhetoric directed at Smiley. It's like people are aggravated at being reminded that, yes, we've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. What he's saying sounds trite, maybe?

Comment posted on Wed. Feb 15, 2012 at 10:49 PM

Erik wrote:

“... he just wants complex characters to be celebrated when they're at least slightly more powerful than they are weak.”

You just described Alonzo Harris in “Training Day.” But he was a villain so Tavis objected to the Academy's celebration of him.

Comment posted on Thu. Feb 16, 2012 at 06:49 AM

Erik wrote:

I could go on. The characters Spencer and Davis play in “The Help” are in an historically weak situation but neither character is weak. You could say Spencer's character is absurdly strong, given the period.

It comes down to politics and aesthetics. In the beginning, no matter how much he dials it down, Tavis is arguing politics over aesthetics. Viola comes back with aesthetics over politics. That's the basic difference.

Comment posted on Thu. Feb 16, 2012 at 06:57 AM

Extra-strength UncleVinny wrote:

Strength/weakness is one axis I could have chosen to contrast. Hero/villain is another. Role model/victim, etc. Alonzo Harris is certainly weak by the end of the film... he's dead! Hollywood and much of America is happier seeing black characters in positions of weakness, no matter how much strength of character they have, nor how complexly satisfying their inner life may be.

Why frame this as putting “politics over aesthetics”? I think he wants both to coexist peacefully. And, I'll come back to... why does Viola have to say he is “destroying the black artist”? Smiley never set out to get black artists to do anything different; he was trying to start a conversation about politics. I simply do not understand the vitriol.

Comment posted on Thu. Feb 16, 2012 at 10:39 AM

Erik wrote:

I love this! Great back and forth.

Viola Davis said the mindset was destroying the black artist, not TS. She's probably been dealing with this, in one way or another, her whole professional life.

Here. Here's my list of top 10 movies in 2011:

Imagine if you and I were as concerned with how these characters were perceived as with how each story resonated. What would we see? A terrifying, abusive father; a bitchy woman trying to get her claws in another man; a cuckold; a sexaholic; and a group of men who destroyed our economy for years and years.

Where are the positive characters in positions of strength?

Yes, we have those, too, and, yes, I'm sure that's part of Tavis' point. My point, and I assume Ms. Davis' point, is that politics and aesthetics can't co-exist; that as soon as you care how a character is perceived, you lose.

Comment posted on Thu. Feb 16, 2012 at 11:40 AM
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