Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer

The Oscar-nominated actresses passionately discuss their roles in The Help and have a spirited debate about the ambivalence many people have regarding their roles in the film.

Viola Davis made her mark as a stage actress, winning Tonys for her performances in King Hedley II and the Fences revival and earning the highest honors for an off-Broadway play for her turn in Intimate Apparel. She added Golden Globe and Oscar nominee to her string of honors for her critically acclaimed performance in the film Doubt and won the best female actor SAG award—and is once again on Oscar watch—for her turn in The Help. Davis launched her acting career after attending Juilliard and Rhode Island College. She's also wowed critics with roles on TV in such series as Law & Order: SVU.

Before receiving all the accolades for her memorable performance as the feisty and defiant Minny Jackson in The Help—including nabbing a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and an Oscar nomination—Octavia Spencer paid her dues steadily for more than a decade. Working alongside Hollywood's elite, she demonstrated her talent as a stage actress, on TV and in films, in both dramatic and comedic roles. Spencer isn’t resting on her laurels; she's writing a mystery screenplay for kids and is starting work on two new films: the indie remake Smash and Diablo Cody’s directorial debut, Lamb of God.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to this program. The talented actresses are both up for Academy Awards this year, as if you did not know, for their stand-out performances in “The Help.” Thankfully, they are not in the same category, so we won’t have any nonsense here tonight. (Laughter)

Both recently took home the top acting prizes at the Screen Actors Guild awards, and so here now a scene from “The Help.”


Tavis: (Laughter) When you all were filming this, Viola, did you have any idea that this film would resonate with the American public in the way that it has?

Viola Davis: Well, I hoped that it would resonate. The book had such a huge following. But I thought that it could go either way. It could either be a great failure or a great success, nothing in between.

It was just too much expectations surrounding the film. Too many people felt like you have to get the characters just right, and then too many naysayers who said, “Why do it anyway?” So.

Tavis: Let’s deal with the naysayers so we can get this out the way.

Octavia Spencer: Oh, body slam.

Davis: Oh, yes, uh-huh.

Tavis: Let’s just start with this.

Spencer: I love naysayers.

Tavis: The yummy stuff.

Spencer: I love it.

Tavis: Let’s start with this and get it out of the way, and let me be honest – the only way I know how to be in conversations –

Davis: Absolutely.

Spencer: Okay.

Tavis: – on television or off the air. I celebrate the two of you, I’m delighted that you were nominated; I’m pulling for both of y’all to win on the Academy Award night. I wouldn’t want it any other way. And yet I will admit to you, and I have friends who feel the same way, there is an ambivalence here.

Davis: Yeah.

Tavis: There’s an ambivalence here, and you should know, I’ve had this same conversation on this very couch with Denzel Washington when he was up for “Training Day.”

Spencer: Okay, good.

Tavis: Because – I’m going to be honest about this.

Spencer: Yeah, no, I want to know.

Tavis: Denzel and I work out in the same gym; we talk about this all the time. He tells me all the time, “Tavis, get over it,” but I can’t get over it.

Davis: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: We have the same conversation. I didn’t like when they did what they did to him on “Hurricane,” a Black hero, I didn’t like the fact he didn’t get nominated for “Malcolm X,” a Black hero.

But for the most rogue, nasty, ugly, law enforcement officer, the Academy celebrates Mr. Washington and gives him the top prize.

You both have done wonderful work and will do more wonderful work, but there’s something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid. Here we are all these years later, and I want you to win, but I’m ambivalent about what you’re winning for. Help me through that, Octavia.

Davis: Do you want to go first?

Spencer: Of course I do.

Tavis: Help me through that.

Spencer: But here’s the first thing that we should address. For me, Anthony Hopkins won for being a serial killer –

Tavis: Absolutely.

Spencer: – who was a cannibal, and Charlize Theron won for being a serial killer. So it doesn’t strike me as odd that the Academy would nominate villains, in a way, but I don’t have a problem with nominating these two earnest, hardworking women, and we’ve never seen this story told from their perspective.

Be that as it may that a white woman wrote the original text, the source text. But the fact is at least she had the – what is the world?

Davis: The insight?

Spencer: The insight –

Davis: The insight.

Spencer: – to write about women who we’ve not heard from. So I do understand your ambivalence and I’m glad that you prefaced it by saying you’re happy for us, because a lot of people aren’t. But I understand that. I do understand that.

Davis: And I will say this – that very mind-set that you have and that a lot of African Americans have is absolutely destroying the Black artist. The Black artist cannot live in the place – in a revisionist place. The Black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy. People are messy.

Caucasian actors know that. They understand that. They understand that when you bring a human being to life, what you want as an artist, to show all the flaws as well as the beauty.

We, as African American artists, are more concerned with image and message and not execution.

Spencer: Right.

Davis: Which is why every time you see our images, they’ve been watered down to a point where they are not –

Spencer: Unrecognizable.

Davis: – 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. So guess what? If the woman next door killed her baby and was 100 pounds overweight and ate a piece of fried chicken and then went next door and killed somebody, that’s what we have to do as Black artists.

It’s what August Wilson did at his best – he told stories about what? Illiterates.

Spencer: Yes.

Davis: Bugs.

Spencer: Preach it.

Davis: Ex-slaves.

Spencer: Yes.

Davis: And Arthur Miller did the same thing, and Arthur Miller is absolutely elevated as being the greatest writer in American dramatic theater history.

Tavis: Let me – I like this.

Spencer: I love this. Let’s stay on this.

Tavis: Let me respectfully challenge that.

Davis: Okay.

Spencer: Okay.

Tavis: I want to challenge it because I think that’s a strong indictment, when you suggest that my mind-set and the mind-set of others is destroying the Black artist.

Davis: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: I started by saying I celebrate you and I want you to win because you played these roles better than anybody else could have played them. So for you now to suggest to me that my mind-set is destroying the artist I think, Viola, is a strong indictment. I’ll let you sit with that for a second – that’s a strong indictment on national television, but I hear it, number one.

Here’s where I disagree, respectfully, though. When you wanted to give an example of artists, the best of us telling our stories, you went right to August Wilson, which I can’t argue with, and you’re making my point – that it takes August Wilson to wrestle with the complexity and the texture of who we are as human beings, and it takes August Wilson to do that.

The point I’m making is that while I celebrate your accomplishment, there is, in fact, a lack of balance in this industry, and it makes me – that’s why I said ambivalent. I’m not upset with you. There’s an ambivalence here that when I see the audience just stand up and cheer and go wild when the characters that we’re celebrating here – they are real. My grandmother, Big Mama, God rest her soul, you’re playing Big Mama.

Spencer: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: My grandmother was a domestic, so understand the story full well. The ambivalence comes when there’s a lack of balance in the industry.

Davis: It does.

Tavis: That’s all I’m saying.

Spencer: I’ll let you rebut, Your Honor.

Davis: If you were to come to me – (laughter) –

Tavis: You’re funny.

Davis: If you would come to me, if you were to come to me and say that you were ambivalence because that you felt the writing was not balanced, that you felt like with Aibileen and Minny and Mae and Constantine, that you didn’t feel that there were a lot of colors to the character, that their humanity was not explored, that you just saw just a blank, flat, unrealistic stereotype, then I would go with you.

Tavis: That’s a fair assessment. That’s a fair assessment.

Davis: I think that what’s a fair –

Spencer: That’s a wonderful assessment.

Davis: I think that that’s a fair criticism.

Tavis: (Unintelligible)

Davis: But if your criticism is that you just don’t want to see the maid or you just don’t want to see Denzel Washington in “Training Day” play the kind of rogue cop, then I have an issue with that. Troy Maxin in “Fences” is a very questionable man.

Tavis: Indeed.

Spencer: Yeah.

Davis: This is a man who is illiterate, ex-baseball player, and in the middle of the play he says, “Listen,” without apology, “I’m having sex with another woman, I’ve impregnated her.” Tells his wife of 23 years, “Hey, I got to raise the baby, and guess what? I’m bringing the baby home to you,” unapologetically, and we sit in that theater and we cheer, then I’m just questioning –

Tavis: But respectfully, Viola, you’re making my point again. You’re back to August Wilson, number one.

Davis: Yeah.

Tavis: In the context of August’s corpus, in the context of his body of work, there is the balance of character, of other upstanding, celebratory African American figures, so that balance is there. It’s not an argument that we’re going to decide on the set today. I’m just suggesting that there are a lot of people celebrating, but there is again – and I keep coming back to – I can think of a thousand other words, but ambivalence is the best word.

There is this ambivalence, this yin and yang. You want them to win and you’re pulling for them, but there’s something about this industry. That’s why it’s not an indictment on the two of you.

Spencer: Right.

Tavis: But I do want to ask a question beyond this.

Spencer: Okay.

Tavis: It’s not an indictment on the two of you as much as it is an indictment on the freaking industry.

Davis: I understand, Tavis.

Spencer: I totally – I understand.

Davis: I understand.

Tavis: That’s my issue.

Spencer: I understand, but then if we’re going to take on the entertainment industry –

Tavis: Let’s do that.

Spencer: – let’s take on basketball, the NBA, the NFL. Let’s take on that industry, because is it not saying to African American young men, “You can’t be a scientist, you can only play basketball?” Let’s take on the music industry with regard to rappers and what we’re saying to them.

To basically say to actors, “You should not – or I have a problem with the fact that you’re playing maids in 2011,” if these characters weren’t characters of noble – there’s nothing ignoble about what they do. These are women who are trying to put their families forward. There’s nothing ignoble about what they do.

Tavis: Agreed.

Spencer: So my problem is with the fact that it’s a limitation. It’s a ceiling that we are placing on ourselves. To me it is about excellence.

Davis: It is.

Spencer: If I’m going to play Minny in 2011, I’d rather be the best Minny in 2011 who is a woman who is standing up for something she believes in. And let me tell you, I would love to play a serial killer, too. Let’s just go ahead and (unintelligible). (Laughter)

Davis: I played a serial killer. I played a serial killer.

Spencer: I want to play them all. I want to stretch.

Davis: Mm-hmm.

Spencer: And that’s the thing. 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: And hue.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Spencer: Exactly.

Tavis: But that’s why I said there’s a fine line here, because when George Lucas, and you know this story full well –

Spencer: Yes.

Tavis: At the same time that we’re celebrating both of your wonderful performances, at the very same time, George Lucas, respectfully, who’s made a whole lot more money in Hollywood than the three of us have ever made in Hollywood, I mean made for Hollywood –

Spencer: Yes.

Tavis: George Lucas can’t get a movie about Black male heroes made. We can get maids made, but we can’t get Tuskegee. He couldn’t get a studio in this town to underwrite, to produce that film. He puts up his own money. After he shoots it, he comes back to Hollywood and has to beg somebody to distribute it.

They still tell him no after he’s done it, and then he has to put his own money up to distribute the film. That’s why I said – and I’m not trying to start a fight here.

Spencer: No, no, no, I understand that.

Tavis: I’m just saying it’s the industry that wears me out. I talk to folk every night on this show about –

Davis: It wears me out, too.

Spencer: Yeah.

Davis: But it wears me out on a different level. It wears me out because for me, there aren’t enough multifaceted roles for women who look like me.

Spencer: Right.

Davis: When I say “multifaceted roles,” they’re roles where I open up a script and the character goes on a journey. Where I see a balance. Where I’m not just always dignified, I know everything, I see everything. I’m just this straight-backed Black woman, friend, all-knowing, seeing, whatever.

I’m talking about a human being, multifaceted human being that actually lives, breathes, all of that, okay?

Tavis: I agree. I agree.

Davis: I have a problem with that. I have a problem with not having more roles that are lead roles, especially for African American women. I have issues with all of that. But I understand the argument with the film to a certain extent, and then after a certain extent I just kind of lose it.

Because my whole thing is, do I always have to be noble? If I always have to be noble in order for the African American community to celebrate my work, that’s when I say –

Spencer: Right.

Davis: – that you’re destroying me as an artist. That’s what I’m saying.

Tavis: Yeah.

Davis: I’m saying that as an artist, you’ve got to see the mess. That’s what we do. What we do as artists is we get a human being, and it’s like putting together a puzzle, okay? And the puzzle has got to be a mixture, a multifaceted mixture of human emotions, and not all of it is going to be pretty.

Tavis: I agree.

Spencer: Right.

Davis: Not all of it –

Tavis: I agree.

Davis: We’re not going to win; we’re not going to be heroes. Okay? That’s all I’m saying.

Tavis: I accept –

Davis: As an artist. So that is what I’m defending.

Spencer: I like what you said.

Davis: But I get what you’re saying, too, trust me.

Tavis: I accept –

Davis: We’re on the front lines.

Spencer: We’re on the front lines and we’re taking the bullets.

Tavis: I accept that explanation, and now that you’ve explained it I still love you and I’ll forgive you for (sounds like) starting this brawl. You called me a destroyer. (Laughter)

Davis: But I love you.

Tavis: I love you back, and ain’t nothing you can do about it. (Laughter) My point simply is, and we’ll move on, when it’s more – I said this at a dinner party just last night, talking about this film, when I was saying to some friends of mine that you two were coming on the show today and this conversation jumped off at my dinner table.

I said last night that something is wrong in America when it’s easier for a Black man to be president of the United States than it is to get a film in Hollywood greenlit about African American male heroes. That’s something the industry needs to deal with.

Spencer: Okay, but let me tell you the other thing.

Tavis: That’s a major, major indictment.

Spencer: It begins with the ticket buyer.

Davis: That’s right.

Tavis: It does. I totally agree.

Spencer: (Unintelligible) wrote an amazing film called “Pariah.”

Davis: “Pariah,” mm-hmm.

Spencer: And if you haven’t paid to see it at a theater near you, you’re a part of the problem. (All talking at once)

Spencer: It’s out there. It’s out there.

Davis: Amen. Thank you, Octavia. (Laughter)

Tavis: We agree on that. We agree. Here’s why I started all this. I raised all this one, just to purge myself of my own ambivalence about this project, but also to ask – and here’s the real question – did any of this, how much of this, go into your decision-making about whether to do the part, about whether or not things need to be rewritten that we never saw? How much of this factored in, if at all, to you bringing these characters to life? That’s where I was headed.

Spencer: I’ll let you take the first slice of that, Ms. Davis.

Davis: I would say that it kept me awake for about three months.

Tavis: Okay, I’m just asking, I’m just asking.

Davis: It did.

Tavis: Okay.

Davis: Because of this conversation right here.

Tavis: Just asking.

Davis: That once again, you feel like you have to defend your choices as a Black artist, and I felt like with Aibileen more so, because she’s so internalized. 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.

Tavis: It’s wiped out, yeah.

Davis: So then what’s left? What’s left could be perceived as “mammy.” My issue a lot of times with Black characters is we always got to be loud and in your face. Very seldom are there subtleties.

Spencer: Right.

Davis: I’m an artist. I believe in subtleties or whatever. I just didn’t feel people would get Aibileen. That no one would take the effort to understand that there was so many things that she was holding and holding down, and therefore, I would be labeled as a Black actress who took the role as a mammy. So I had a lot of issues.

Spencer: And we differ respectively, because I didn’t have one issue whatsoever. (Laughter) Because 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.

Davis: You keep moving on, moving.

Spencer: But you have to keep pushing it on, because –

Tavis: You feel no burden at all with any of your choices about your people?

Spencer: No. No. You know why? Because where is the indictment within the Jewish community about movies about their history?

Davis: Yeah, that’s right.

Tavis: They don’t have to be indicted, because this town will make a movie about the Holocaust seven days a week. That’s why.

Spencer: Well, the thing is – but here’s the other thing. We have so many affluent African American producers. Why are we still having this – and people who’ve made money in the industry. Why are we still having the same conversation? They can’t pool their resources?

Tavis: Okay, because –

Davis: Okay, I will say this –

Tavis: Because they don’t control distribution channels, Octavia, that’s why.

Spencer: But why haven’t they pooled their resources together to – because we could – the thing is if someone isn’t doing what you feel they should be doing, why are you waiting for them to be doing anything? You should be doing it yourself.

Tavis: Agreed.

Spencer: I think we have enough resources out there, we have enough brilliant minds out there. If people are this upset, then I’m thinking let’s be a part of the solution and pool our resources and have our own distribution.

Davis: No, but that’s not the issue. The issue is they say that forgiveness is about giving up all hope of a different past.

Spencer: Absolutely.

Davis: And that’s the issue. It’s the issue with me, too. I’ve done the same thing. I’ve absolutely been guilty of the same thing, is that 350 years of racist policies, and what’s left is this pain, this anger, okay?

Spencer: Anger.

Davis: And anything, any image that’s out of sort can agitate it. It is not a clear-cut, linear argument, because listen – 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.

Tavis: I accept that.

Davis: So I’m saying that it’s something deeper.

Tavis: It’s a sickness.

Davis: It’s a deeper issue.

Tavis: It’s a sickness.

Davis: It’s a deeper issue in us, and I think that a lot of times we want to either revise or erase our history, but we very rarely want to face it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Davis: We don’t want to face that somehow, we can’t let go of that pain.

Spencer: Right.

Tavis: I want to tweak one word. I hear the point you’re making, and in theory, I agree with it. Where I sit, it’s not anger, it’s righteous indignation, and those are two very different things. It’s not anger, it’s righteous indignation.

Spencer: I think that’s a fair assessment.

Davis: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: It’s at some point wanting to see a more – I’m not naïve, but a more level playing field. So I’m not holding on to some anger. I wasn’t a slave. My mama wasn’t a slave. (Laughter) So I’m not angry about that. I do have a certain level of righteous indignation where I wind up playing for the (unintelligible).

Let me move it again to ask this question. What is it for all this – this is what I love about the movie, because I –

Spencer: I love it too. I love having these conversations.

Tavis: I’m a thinker. I’m a thinker.

Spencer: Yeah, love it.

Davis: Me, too.

Tavis: At least I act like one on television. I try to think, and I love movies that move me to think.

Spencer: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: Which raises the question what do you think the American public is connecting to in this film about the humanity of these two characters?

Spencer: Just that – the humanity of these two characters. I said it last week – these are our mothers, these are our grandmothers. And let me tell you something – this country was built on the backs of our mothers, our great-grandmothers, our great-grandfathers, and they should be celebrated in a way that I feel Viola’s character does, above and beyond.

Davis: You, too, Octavia.

Spencer: Her character – well, Minny, she baked that pie. (Laughter)

Tavis: That S-pie, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Davis: Our grandmamas would never have done that with a pie.

Tavis: I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know about Daisy Mae. I don’t know about – yeah, example.

Davis: (Unintelligible)

Spencer: I don’t know. I don’t know – I’m holding out hope, I’m holding out hope. But I think it’s the humanity, and you know what else? Because it separates out all of the white versus Black. It’s these people that come together to do something to make a difference in their world.

A young white girl is coupled with, in the script, older Black woman, because Viola’s not that much older than Emma, and I’m middle of the two of them.

Davis: Oh, no, I’m a lot older than Emma.

Spencer: I’m not. (Laughter) I’m not that much older than Emma.

Davis: A whole lot older than Emma.

Spencer: I want to keep that illusion in my head.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Spencer: But it’s about celebrating those things, because all too often I think we focus on the things that make us different and never embrace the things where we are the same.

Tavis: Let me take your word, “celebrating,” take Octavia’s word, celebrating, viola, and ask you if on Sunday night, and I’m praying to God because I celebrate Black women and I want them to always shine, so I’m hoping – as I said at the top of show, I’ll say it at the bottom – that the both of you win in both of these categories. That’s my prayer. I want you both to win.

If, in fact, both of you take home that Oscar statue, what do you think the Academy will be celebrating? A fine performance exclusively, a deserving performance exclusively? You think the Academy, is that what the celebration will be about?

Davis: That’s what my hope would be.

Spencer: Yeah.

Davis: Is that the performances rise up to a level. Listen, the thing that you have to hope for with African American artists at the best is that they pass the baton on to someone who can carry it to the next leg.

Sometimes we’re so concerned with image, we get so caught up with it, that we don’t think about the execution, and ultimately to say something probably highly controversial, a lot of times the people who project those images that are so positive aren’t artists. They’re just not.

So therefore, they have about a good two years in them and then you never see them again, and it’s not just because Hollywood isn’t celebrating them or whatever, it’s because they don’t have the insight, the talent, whatever, to carry the baton on to the next leg.

Octavia, me, Ms. Tyson, ingénue Ellis, Roslyn Ruff –

Spencer: (Unintelligible)

Davis: (Unintelligible) Lachance, that these are truly actors who are celebrated, artists who are celebrated. That’s what I think.

Tavis: Let me close on this note, then, as I look in this camera, not that I have anything to say about this in this town. But I hope this Sunday night the Academy will do the right thing and give these statues to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, because they have earned it, because they have played these characters better than anybody else in this town could have played these characters, and then let’s move on. Let’s tell some other stories about –

Davis: I love him.

Tavis: – about the character and the complexity and the humanity of Black people. Viola, I’m rooting for you, and Octavia –

Davis: Even though I insulted you?

Tavis: No, I’m past – that was 20 minute ago. I’m past that.

Spencer: I love that.

Davis: But I celebrate you, Tavis.

Tavis: I celebrate you two.

Spencer: I want us to be celebrating together.

Tavis: All right. (Laughter) Congratulations in advance.

Spencer: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.


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Last modified: February 10, 2012 at 2:02 pm