wasted words

viola davis, #OscarsSoWhite, and the new stories hollywood needs

Just how much of an impact can Viola Davis leave in a single scene? In just 11 minutes of screentime in the 2008 film “Doubt,” she gave an answer: enough to be nominated for an Academy Award. Portraying the mother of a African-American boy being preyed upon by a gregarious priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Davis holds her own in an extended argument with a strict nun (Meryl Streep). The nun wants evidence of Father Flynn’s sins; Davis’s character, Mrs. Miller, just wants to make the best out of a bad situation. If her son Henry can make it until June, he has a chance of getting into a good high school, paving the way for an education Miller, a maid, never had a chance to receive. So she urges the nun to do the one thing she can do to survive: compromise with the flawed system.

Over the past few years, however, black actors and actresses in Hollywood have had enough with the quiet compromises of one-scene performances and characters forgotten in the script. They have demanded action. A second straight year with zero racial minorities nominated in the acting categories yielded #OscarsSoWhite, boycotts from Spike Lee and Will Smith, and a scathing monologue from Oscars host Chris Rock. Ratings dropped to a near record low. And as Davis noted in her speech at Brown last week: “Everyone is required to be an activist.”

But if there is anything Davis’s own Academy Award nominated performances have shown, it is that diversity is never just a question of nominations and little gold statues. Davis may not have an Oscar, but her nominations for “Doubt” and “The Help” (2011), not to mention her 2015 Emmy for the TV show, “How to Get Away With Murder,” affirm her as a major talent. Yet they also reveal just how far Hollywood is from achieving meaningful racial diversity.

“Doubt” and “The Help,” three years apart, are instructive in showing the many obstacles in the path of black, Asian, and Hispanic stars. The former is based off a Pulitzer-winning play and the latter is adapted from a best-selling book. Both are directed by white men, John Patrick Stanley and Tate Taylor, respectively. White male directors, for all their immense artistic achievements, have a lousy record on race. They are likely to fill their movies with predominantly white casts and crews. So in some respects, the deck is already stacked against non-white actors like Davis.

But the bigger crisis is one of representation and narratives. “Doubt” and “The Help” are fundamentally stories about white people. They both take place in the 1960s. “Doubt” concerns itself with a white institution, the Catholic Church, in the process of integrating a lone black student. But everyone else who appears in the film, with the exception of Davis and her character’s son, is white. “Doubt,” which earned acting nominations for Hoffman, Streep and Amy Adams, is part of a category of solid, interesting period pieces. Think “Carol,” “The Danish Girl,” and “Brooklyn”—similar films in this year’s Oscars. They aren’t racist, but they leave precious little space for minority actors to shine.

“The Help” is a very different case study. It is a film not just within history, but about history. Set in the 1960s Mississippi, it follows a white reporter, Skeeter (Emma Stone), who befriends and interviews domestic workers (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) for a book of interviews. In the course of the film, they reveal the systematic racism in Jackson and paint the local socialites as fools and hypocrites. Even though Viola Davis’s character, Aibileen, narrates the film, Skeeter’s life is prioritized and her viewpoint internalized. Her friendship, family life, and love affairs fill the movie’s 146 minutes of runtime. Almost all the scenes seem to follow an unwritten rule that black characters must be accompanied by white ones. Yet, despite these barriers, Davis succeeds in filling her role with utter humanity. When Aibileen has the chance to tell Skeeter about the death of her son, she does so with stunning pathos. Davis plays the final scene of the movie, in which Aibileen is fired for participating in the book project, with righteous fury. Who can doubt that she deserved an Oscar nod?

But the question Viola Davis and #OscarsSoWhite have raised is something different: How do we create stories that aren’t just about white people? “The Help” featured a diverse cast and even won Octavia Spencer an Oscar, but it’s no liberation from a white perspective. Hollywood this year, from “Spotlight” to “The Revenant” to “The Big Short,” told convincing stories that form an incomplete collective history. Actors like Viola Davis are too good to be stuck in one-note or one scene roles. They deserve an artistic vision that can match their talent.

And thankfully, bright spots are already on the horizon. Two years ago, “12 Years A Slave” presented an unflinching look at the violence of slavery from the perspective of a slave. Last year’s “Selma” documented the compromises and struggles of the civil rights movement. It was a very good film that highlighted an even better lead performance from David Oyelowo. This year, Spike Lee’s “Chi-raq,” an ambitious attempt to portray Chicago’s gun violence, was a hotspot for African American talent. Was the film always a success? Of course not. But what will guarantee better, more artistically daring films in the long run is taking chances on telling stories and histories that are as diverse as America.

Between theatre opportunities and television, Viola Davis will never be lacking for work. But if this talented performer continues to only be able to find roles like those in “Doubt” and “The Help,” it’s audiences that lose out. “The most powerful thing you can do with your art and your narratives is to tell the truth,” Davis told Brown students on Feb. 29. Davis has been telling the truth, so when will Hollywood start listening?