On Sunday night, Viola Davis won the Screen Actors Guild Award for best actress in the film The Help in an upset win over legendary actress Meryl Streep. E News correspondent Ted Casablanca asked Davis backstage at the show "why it took a Caucasian woman" (Emma Stone as Skeeter) "to get these African-American maids in her movie motivated for change."
According to Casablanca, Davis' reply was, "I see your point … But you have to wonder why someone would ask this question." Casablanca went on to inform Davis that many people were asking the question, and the film essentially makes it look as if it took a white woman to commandeer the civil rights movement, which is a problem for those who know very little about the movement, particularly children.
In response, Davis said, "Skeeter [Emma Stone's character] just wanted to be a great writer. And she helped these women. But it is the black women who risked their lives in this movie."
Octavia Spencer, who, according to Casablanca, had given him "hell" for asking that same question at the Golden Globes, appeared at that point and gave him a stern look followed by a huge smile, upon which Davis said again, "It's a loaded question."
Indeed, it is a loaded question when the proverbial gun is pointed at the heads of black female actresses. While it is admirable that Casablanca would ask the "tough" question as a journalist, it is disingenuous for him to feign ignorance about why Davis and Spencer would be disturbed by that question.
The ability of these two women to be cast in a major motion picture — one as a lead and the other in a supporting role — is quite unusual in Hollywood. Some would argue that outside of a Tyler Perry film, it would take a movie about black maids in Mississippi for that number of black actresses to be employed in Hollywood.
Casablanca's question is loaded because these women might be committing career suicide by critiquing the very system that is affording them the opportunity to star in a popular film. Regardless of how one feels about the book or the film, Davis and Spencer were able to star in a major motion picture; they also contributed stellar performances. This sentiment is shared by fans, colleagues and award-show voters, as evidenced by Spencer's Golden Globe and SAG win in addition to Davis' SAG win. For either actress to admit that the film is racist would be potentially more controversial than the actual success of the film.
A negative response could turn Davis into another stereotype — the bitter, angry black woman who is never satisfied — as opposed to being seen as a thoughtful, insightful and informed actress. Davis can't answer that question because she can't gauge how people will respond to her. That is very much a part of being a black woman: the racist perception that we are always angry or dissatisfied, particularly in hostile environments. To be clear, Hollywood is a hostile environment for most people, and the historic treatment of black actresses and directors speaks to this hostility.
Whether or not Davis is playing a maid, she is an A-list actress whose talent is undeniable. But biting the hand that is feeding her (and well, I might add) is not prudent on her part. I also wonder if Casablanca asked Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney or the film's director, Tate Taylor, if the film is racist. He should be asking that question of the industry executives and other stars of the film if he is going to ask Davis and Spencer what is most certainly a loaded question.
The metaphorical gun is always pointed at black actresses trying to work in the Hollywood film industry. For these actresses to pull the trigger by answering such a question while other actresses are let off the hook — and in the middle of awards season, no less — would certainly mean career suicide. Asking Davis and Spencer to speak out against racism in Hollywood while those who perpetuate these racist practices go unchecked is unfair at best.
Answering Casablanca's loaded question is a price far too great to pay. Davis and Spencer have already paid a price as black actresses trying to make a living in Hollywood.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.