‘The Butler’ Versus ‘The Help’: Gender Matters

While Viola Davis had to defend her role as a servant, Forest Whitaker has garnered only praise.

Screenshot from Lee Daniels' The Butler; Screenshot from The Help
Screenshot from Lee Daniels' The Butler; Screenshot from The Help

(The Root) — Like many of the films in the “it’s complicated” historical-fiction genre, Lee Daniels’ The Butler uses broad strokes to paint a decidedly unpretty picture — the cinematic equivalent of an Instagram filter.

But despite the artistic liberties and Forest Gump-like rendering of the life of White House butler Cecil Gaines — based upon the true story of Eugene Allen — in its first week out The Butler has seemed to bob and weave past the reflexive reproof such movies usually attract.

Almost immediately, I noticed the stark difference in tone between critical discussion of The Butler and another similarly entitled film, The Help. Whereas this most recent film, jam-packed with big first names like Oprah, Cuba and Forest, has been toasted, The Help was trashed.

Early criticism of The Help — starring Viola Davis, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her leading role as Aibileen, a maid — was swift and unrelenting. As part of her publicity blitz in the lead up to the film’s release and the ensuing awards season, Davis spent as much time defending her choice to play Aibileen as she did promoting the film.

In an interview with newsman Tavis Smiley — who pointedly told Davis and her co-star, Octavia Spencer, “I want you to win, but I’m ambivalent about what you are winning for” — Davis had to explain herself.

“The black artist cannot live in a place, in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy, people are messy,” said Davis. At this point the actress had had a lot of practice being on the defense.

“I’ve been under assault that the maid, the mammy, is a tired image, to which I respond and have responded that I created a character, a human being, and this is an important story to tell. It’s an important dialogue to have,” said Davis in an interview with the Wall Street Journal right before the 2011 awards season.

None of Davis’ defensive tactics have been necessary for Forest Whitaker during the full-court publicity press for The Butler.

While on ABC’s The View, Whitaker said early positive responses to the film had been “universal.” In an interview with the New York Times, the actor was asked about his methods, how he was able to convey his character’s “pride and struggle,” and not why he’d decided to take on such a role. Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers asked Whitaker in an interview about the research involved in playing Cecil Gaines.