I can recall the first time I saw actress Aunjanue Ellis on TV. It was 1995 and my family and I flocked to the living room to watch our weekly Thursday night line-up of “Martin,” “Living Single” and “New York Undercover.”
So there I was watching Ellis play a bad-girl character named Claudia. Claudia was the girlfriend of an outlaw by the name of Buster, who was played by then virtually unknown actor Terrance Howard. Buster and Claudia were the show’s version of Bonnie and Clyde and needless to say the show’s ending was reminiscent of the ill-fate ending of the criminal duo of the 1930’s. Truthfully, I would have liked for Ellis to portray a nicer role, but I was still proud to say that she and I shared some commonalities.
“I had graduated from NYU a couple of months before filming “New York Undercover” and that was my first acting job,” Ellis recalls. “I remember being so excited about it. It felt so validating and it was so much fun playing that Bonnie and Clyde type character with Terrance Howard. It was just fun working in New York and driving around being crazy in a convertible, carrying guns. It was very exciting. Working on that show was like my coming out party.”
While most may not remember her role as Claudia from the show, Ellis has a long list of other memorable characters in movies such as Disappearing Acts, Ray, Notorious, Men of Honor and CBS TV series “The Mentalist,” that are sure to trigger an aha moment for avid movie and TV buffs.
Ellis’s, who already has an extensive filmography, can now add summer blockbuster and New York Times best seller “The Help” to her list of more than 40 plus movies, TV series and theatrical productions.
For those who have been socially sequestered and never heard of, seen nor read “The Help” here’s a quick synopsis. Written by Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett “The Help” was set in the 1960’s. It takes a look at what happens when a southern town’s unspoken code of rules and behavior are shattered by three courageous women who strike up an unlikely friendship with a southern society girl who turns a Mississippi town upside down when she decides to interview black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families.
Ellis plays a maid by the name of Yule Mae Davis. “The more I read and learned about this character, the more I saw that I had so much in common with this woman. Education was incredible important for her and she wanted her children to be educated at the school that I had an opportunity to attend,” referring to her undergraduate years at Tougaloo College. “For me to be working on a movie that is filmed in Mississippi, written by a Mississippian and produced by a Mississippian… it was just a blessing to me. I was literally able to drive to work a couple of times.”
“The Help” debuted in theaters across the country on August 10 and has grossed more than $71.8 million. USA Today gave the movie raved reviews. Stating that it was “a warmly engaging book…made into an equally affecting movie.” However, the movie wasn’t met without some resistance and its share of controversy. Many wondered if the book turned commercial box office success would reinforce some negative stereotypes that Mississippi and black women were no longer interest in being associated with. Essence Magazine contributor and City College of New York English professor Michele Wallace wrote in review of the movie “The Help glosses over the reality of African American triumphs we bled and died for, in order to make a feel good Hollywood story.” While other critics questioned whether or not another racially driven movie about Mississippi was needed.
“I disagree whole-heartily. I think that we have to be honest with ourselves as Americans,” Ellis said. “For us to say this movie puts us back kind of suggests that there aren’t women who live like this today and there are. In New York City you can ride the train between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon, and what you see are black women taking care of white children. I was on the set of the movie at this estate in Greenwood and was introduced to a black maid who was dressed almost identical to the thread of my costume. That was 2010. So how is that different from what happened in this book? This moving is putting a mirror to a moment that we choose to ignore.”
Ellis will agree that there are still issues that Mississippi needs to address. She doesn’t, however, mince words about her dislike for recent comments made by the movie’s leading lady Viola Davis and BET’s 106 and Park’s host Rocsi.
“I have to say that I didn’t see the interview, but my sister told me about it. Let me start by stating that I have the utmost respect for Viola Davis, but when I heard what was said, I didn’t like it at all. I was very insulted by it. I was in California when I first encountered a fried cookie. We didn’t fry Twinkies, cookies nor Kool-Aid where I grew up. I’m not going to say that we don’t have a nutrition problem in Mississippi, but to say that the only thing to do in Mississippi is to eat fried foods and go to Walmart, is not true. That discounts a whole state of people, a whole culture and it discounts us and makes us seem small and we are not small people.”
Despite what others may perceive Mississippi to be, Ellis knows that her home state is rich in culture and a movie such as “The Help” is another platform to showcase the talent that has become synonymous with the creative conclave of Mississippians.
“We as Mississippians sometimes feel that we have to escape from here because there’s nothing here and there is some truth to that when it comes to the arts, but we have so much shine in this place and in each other, that we sometimes don’t recognize in ourselves. For this movie to have the kind of publicity and the critical response that it’s getting, for it to have the commercial success that it is having, it puts Mississippi in sort of a framework that I don’t think that we as Mississippians imagine ourselves to be. I’m so thrilled and privileged to be a part of something like this.”
Written by Shameka L. Reed