Thank you Viola Davis. The accomplished actress and star of the acclaimed film “The Help” recently took the opportunity to make a very important statement about the way we describe black actresses.
Davis is purported to be the front-runner in the Lead Actress category in the Academy Awards for her portrayal of Abilene, a 1960’s-era maid in “The Help.” The Hollywood Reporter recently sat down with the actress, and when asked about the dignity she brought to the character, Davis very politely let loose.
“I love and hate the word ‘dignity,'” she explained. “I feel it’s overused for black actresses, as with ‘sassy” and ‘soulful.’ I can go on. The same adjectives are pulled out of a magic box.”
Yes, please, and more of that, Viola.
It seems that somewhere, there’s a small dictionary called “ways to dole out backhanded compliments to minorities” that every privileged white person has read and memorized.
These “compliments” feel out of hand because they’re calling people out for basically doing what any other person should (being “dignified,” or speaking intelligently…) But because the person being “complimented” is black, their seemingly routine behavior is somehow exceptional.
My grandmother always said she didn’t get excited when her kids graduated from high school, or avoided jail, because that’s what they were supposed to do. She had a level of expectation that her five kids were to at least perform at the level of everyone else, regardless of their circumstance being raised by a single mom on a tight budget. Yet society doesn’t hold these same standards for black people. We’re “extremely intelligent” if we climb the corporate ladder, “sassy” if we happen to express an opinion, “soulful” if we show heart and gumption.
And it’s not just black actresses who have to deal with these exhaustively overused adjectives.