Viola Davis: “My Entire Life Has Been a Protest”
The Oscar and Emmy winner overcame long odds to make it in Hollywood. Then the real work began.
During the fraught, emotional days after the killing of George Floyd, Viola Davis wanted, more than anything, to be out on the streets of Los Angeles, shouting, protesting, holding a sign.
She wanted to join the thousands of others who flooded cities across the nation and around the world to call for justice for Floyd and all the other Black men and women unjustly killed by the police.
“She called me and said she was going,” Davis’s close friend and neighbor, the actor Octavia Spencer, tells me by email. “I immediately talked her out of that.” Spencer and Davis were both concerned about putting themselves or their loved ones with health conditions at risk and were acutely aware that due to systemic health care inequality, COVID-19 has a much higher mortality rate for Black Americans. “Both of us cried,” Spencer continues. “This WAS our civil rights movement, and we were sidelined because of health issues. We felt isolated from the movement.”
Then they had an idea: What about a neighborhood demonstration with friends and family members who needed to be mindful of their health? They banded together with Davis’s husband of 17 years, the actor and producer Julius Tennon; fellow actor Yvette Nicole Brown; and a handful of others and camped out on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Studio City. They wore masks, which also rendered them unrecognizable, but even so someone across the street brought them a pizza in a show of solidarity. Davis’s sign read, simply, “AHMAUD ARBERY.”
“We said we’d just be out there for a few minutes, and it ended up being hours, hours,” Davis tells me a few weeks later from her home in Los Angeles. “Almost like a big dam bursting open.” She pauses. “We got a lot of beeps,” she says. “We got a few fingers.” She means middle fingers, of course. “But this was the first time the fingers did not bother me.”
I ask Davis if she had protested like that before, and with a kind of resignation and pride, she says, “I feel like my entire life has been a protest. My production company is my protest. Me not wearing a wig at the Oscars in 2012 was my protest. It is a part of my voice, just like introducing myself to you and saying, ‘Hello, my name is Viola Davis.’”
let me tell you about that voice. I know you’ve heard it. But to be enveloped by it, to have it directed at you, while she is swaddled in plush black terry cloth, at ease in her kitchen, is spine-tingling. Davis’s voice, so much like the stringed instrument she shares a name with, is deeper than you might expect resonant, warm, filled with purpose. Her presence radiates even through cyberspace.
At times, Davis is delivering a reckoning, or a buried history, or a call to arms. Occasionally she says my name to emphasize a point and it stops me in my tracks. Has anyone ever said my name before? Has anyone ever taken such care over it? I have no idea what to do with my hands, my face, but I keep assenting, nodding, just trying not to fall behind.
Our interview takes place on Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating Black emancipation that has never before had so much mainstream recognition. For a woman who entwines her voice and mission inextricably into her career, it’s fitting. Davis, who turns 55 in August, languished in the margins for years before vaulting into the public consciousness in the last decade.
In 2015, she became the first Black woman ever to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama for How to Get Away With Murder, which finished its twisty, unsettling six-season run this spring. In 2017, she won an Oscar for her supporting role as Rose Maxson in Fences a part for which she also collected a Tony.
She will portray Michelle Obama in Showtime’s upcoming series First Ladies, which is being produced by JuVee Productions, the company run by Davis and her husband. Davis lends extraordinary gravity to the roles she plays, a presence both weighty and magnetic. Her performance in The Help as maid Aibileen Clark helps elevate it from apologetic pablum to a sincere examination of the psychological warfare of deep-seated racism: The emotional stakes of the whole movie happen on her face.
Davis credits the power of her work to the despair of her impoverished childhood in Central Falls, Rhode Island. The fifth of six children, with an alcoholic and sometimes violent father, the young Viola Davis was often in trouble at school, hungry, and unwashed. Her family couldn’t always afford laundry and soap, let alone breakfast and dinner. She wet the bed until she was 14 and sometimes went to school stinking of urine. “When I was younger,” says Davis, “I did not exert my voice because I did not feel worthy of having a voice.”
It was the support and affection of people who knew she was worthy that lifted her out of what she calls “the hole”: her sisters Deloris, Diane, and Anita, and her mother, Mae Alice. “[They] looked at me and said I was pretty,” she says. “Who’s telling a dark-skinned girl that she’s pretty? Nobody says it. I’m telling you, Sonia, nobody says it. The dark-skinned Black woman’s voice is so steeped in slavery and our history.
If we did speak up, it would cost us our lives. Somewhere in my cellular memory was still that feeling that I do not have the right to speak up about how I’m being treated, that somehow I deserve it.” She pauses. “I did not find my worth on my own.”
In school, Davis learned the accepted version of American history, which only raised more questions. “I was taught so many things that didn’t include me,” she says. “Where was I? What were people like me doing?” One summer when Davis was a teenager, a counselor at Upward Bound heard her and her sister repeating what they’d learned: that the slaves were illiterate. He hauled them to the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society in Providence and showed them microfiche of the Black abolitionists to inspire them. “We sat there for hours and we cried,” says Davis. “We cried the entire time.”
Now let me tell you about Davis’s mind. She insists that she is not at her sharpest at the moment. “For the last six years my brain has been mush because I’ve been on a TV show,” she says. “I used to be a voracious reader.” Her brain, to put it very mildly, does not seem like mush. Over the course of our interview, Davis will quote playwrights Arthur Miller and George C.
Wolfe, author and professor Brené Brown, existentialist psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, civil rights leader Barbara Jordan, Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz, monk and theologian Thomas Merton, Aristotle, and, on the necessity of using ham hocks when making collard greens, Meryl Streep.
“When I was younger I did not exert my voice,” says Davis, “because I did not feel worthy of having a voice.”
Davis does not do small talk. We were only minutes into the interview when she told me that her fundamental need, the root of her being, is to be worthy and valued. It is somewhat disconcerting to converse with someone with so much self-knowledge and not just self-knowledge but knowledge. Right now Davis is reading a book that is opening her mind to her history, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, by Joy DeGruy.
Discussing the book, she runs me through an abbreviated history of the oppression of Black Americans, citing the Casual Killing Act and the Protestant ethic on her way to mass incarceration and Black maternal mortality. Having discovered her worth and she credits theater, as well as her mother, sisters, and educators she clutches it with both hands, refusing to let go.
After graduating from Rhode Island College in 1988, Davis went to Juilliard. Her experience was unlike the other students’. She celebrated her graduation with what her skimpy funds allowed her: instant ramen and pickled pigs feet. Juilliard has since evolved, she believes, but when she was there, “It was a very Eurocentric training. It was the type of school that did not acknowledge my presence in the world.”
When she graduated from Juilliard in 1993, Davis was deep into James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Nikki Giovanni, and Malcolm X. “I was reading everyone at that point,” she says. “Because I was angry.” It was then she began to dive into the plays of August Wilson, a voice not acknowledged at school. Davis won a Tony for King Hedley II and received early acclaim for Seven Guitars on Broadway.
Her turn as Rose Maxson in Fences is considered definitive, and this year, she’ll star as legendary blues singer Ma Rainey in the adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix, as well as executive produce a documentary for the streamer called Giving Voice, about high school students competing in a monologue contest based on his plays. “He writes for us,” Davis says of Wilson. “I love August, because he lets [Black characters] talk. A lot of times I don’t get to talk. And then sometimes even when I do talk, I’m like, that’s not what I would say.” She makes a disdainful moue.
Set during a recording session in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom inspires a performance from Davis that’s closer to her morally ambiguous lead in How to Get Away With Murder, Annalise Keating, than to the long-suffering Rose Maxson. As Rainey, she’s earthy, sweaty, and demanding, her talent nearly outmatched by her ego.
Heavyset, gold-toothed, and bisexual, Rainey required a transformation: “She was 300 pounds. In Hollywood, that’s a lot…. Everybody wants to be pretty, so they’ll say, Ooh, I don’t want to be 300 pounds, can we just ignore that? In my opinion no. If they say she’s 300 pounds, you have to be 300 pounds, or else you’re not honoring her.” Davis gained weight and wore padding to approximate Rainey’s girth.
The hardest part, she says, isn’t even the superficial circumstances of a character. It’s discovering what they strive for and what holds them back. She quotes a famous passage from Merton’s novel My Argument With the Gestapo: “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”
For Davis, this is both life advice and acting credo. “It’s always something basic,” she says, at the heart of every individual, every character. But it’s the hardest element to isolate. “Sometimes I skip it,” she says dryly. “I say, ‘Maybe I’ll get the revelation later.’ ” For Rainey, she says, it’s about being respected. At one point, in a fit of pique, Rainey asks for three Coca-Colas and won’t perform, or cooperate, until she gets them. Noisily she glugs them down while the white agent, white producer, and her Black band wait. It’s infuriating but also, totally badass.
Partway through our conversation, Davis lifts her screen and carries me from her dazzling white kitchen to a more secluded office. I float past a wall covered in framed pictures; high ceilings; mansion comfort. (“Here’s the thing,” she told The New Yorker in 2016. “Because I grew up in such tight spaces, I don’t get manicures, pedicures, I’m not into cars, but I am into a fabulous house.”) Davis has changed locations because Tennon, her husband, began loading the dishwasher.
I didn’t get to say hello, but I did see his arm, and the open, affectionate look on her face when Davis turned toward him. “We are a loud family,” she tells me as she settles into her office. She says that if her daughter, Genesis, were there, she would absolutely want to say hello. The 10-year-old appeared in her first movie, The Angry Birds Movie 2, last year.
The office is one big trophy case, with Davis’s many awards crowded along one wall. Davis does not like the room “As soon as I go in there, my anxiety goes up” so she’s facing away from the statuettes, focusing instead on a photo of her and Streep on the set of 2008’s Doubt. Though Davis had made a name for herself on Broadway, Doubt was her mainstream breakthrough a seven-minute performance that ended up snagging her an Oscar nomination. Streep, during her own awards run for the movie, championed her scene partner, crying out at one point, “Somebody give her a movie!”
“What do you call someone who shares your belief system?” Davis asks me. “She’s in my tribe, Meryl is.”
Streep’s career galvanizes Davis. In an industry that prizes ingenues, both actors have made a mark playing meaty, complex, mature women, though Davis didn’t have the benefit of the first 20 years of Streep’s career, with roles designed to showcase her gifts. At this point, with a production company of her own, Davis knows she can find work. What concerns her are the Black actresses who are younger and fighting not to be invisible—the earlier versions of who she was.
“There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known. To pop her!” She names other performers Emma Stone, Reese Witherspoon, Kristen Stewart all “fabulous white actresses,” who have had “a wonderful role for each stage of their lives, that brought them to the stage they are now. We can’t say that for many actors of color.”
Davis took her part as Aibileen in The Help because she herself was hoping to pop. “I was that journeyman actor, trying to get in.” The film became a nationwide sensation and nabbed her another Oscar nomination, but its reductive view of race relations troubled many critics. In 2018, Davis told the New York Times that she regretted taking the role.
She still does, even though The Help recently became the most viewed film on Netflix. Davis is effusive in her praise of writer-director Tate Taylor, who is white, and the majority-female cast. “I cannot tell you the love I have for these women, and the love they have for me,” she says. “But with any movie are people ready for the truth?”
“Viola is one of the great actors of all time,” says Denzel Washington. “She’s been recognized later than some. But some people get the opportunity early, and they’re done by Tuesday.”
The Help was filmed partly in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Davis was acutely conscious of the area’s racist roots: Emmett Till was tortured and killed a few miles away, in Money, and the first White Citizens’ Council was said to be founded in nearby Indianola. The film reaches toward the tragedy of Aibileen’s story, then rapidly undermines its own high stakes, turning racism into a social farce.
“Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity,” says Davis. “They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but…it’s catering to the white audience. The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. Then they leave the movie theater and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were.”
Here, Davis references the power of Wilson’s work, versus what she calls “watered-down” material. She points to To Kill a Mockingbird, recently revived as a stage play by Aaron Sorkin on Broadway. It’s beloved for good reason, she says. But, “Atticus Finch was the hero. Tom Robinson was slaughtered and killed in a prison for something he did not do!” She laughs, the humor of disorientation, frustration, disbelief. “He’s not the hero.”
“There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help. But there’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth],” Davis says. The Help, like so many other movies, was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”
And, astoundingly, while The Help raised her profile, it did not open the floodgates to more substantive acting roles. People sometimes ask Davis why she did network TV for six years when she had a movie career. “I always ask them, What movies? What were those movies?” she says with an incredulous shake of her head. “Listen, I got Widows” the 2018 action thriller about a team of women who plan a heist—“but if I just relied on the Hollywood pipeline…. No, there are not those roles.”
Widows director Steve McQueen agrees. “The main point for me,” he tells me, unprompted, is that “she needs to play more characters on film. She has got to be given more attention.” He cannot contain his praise for Davis’s talent: “She goes where others dare not tread. She’s not afraid to be human,” adding, “She hasn’t been given her due that’s a fact.”
But Davis has worked wonders with the opportunities she’s been afforded, to say the least. “Viola is one of the great actors of all time, not just her time,” says Denzel Washington, who produced Fences and Ma Rainey while also directing and starring in the former. “She’s been recognized obviously not too late, but later than some. But she’s gone farther than most. So, you know, which would you prefer? Some people get the opportunity early, and they’re done by Tuesday.”
With the #MeToo movement, Hollywood has taken up the cause of sexual harassment and pay discrepancy, highlighting how differently the industry treats men and women. But commenting on harassment and money is still especially fraught for Black talent. Says Davis, “We know as women, when you speak up, you’re labeled a bitch immediately. Unruly immediately. Just as a woman.
As a woman of color, there is very, very, very little you have to do. All you have to do is maybe roll your eyes, and that’s it.” In moments like that, she feels that post-traumatic slave syndrome once again: “Negro, you do as I say, when I tell you to do it.” Later, she’ll tell me, “If there is a place that is a metaphor for just fitting in and squelching your own authentic voice, Hollywood would be the place.”
With the caveat that “when we talk about our pay as celebrities, it gets almost obnoxious…50 percent of Americans make $30,000 or less,” Davis mentions an old news report in which a female performer making $420,000 per episode for a TV show was frustrated to find that her male costar was commanding $500,000.
(She appears to be referring to House of Cards stars Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey, but there was a similar story about Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey of Grey’s Anatomy.) The discrepancy was wrong, Davis says. “But how I saw it was” she drops her voice an octave “You’re making $420,000 per episode?! Me, Taraji P. Henson, Kerry Washington, Issa Rae, Gabrielle Union we’re number one on the call sheet!”
Not speaking out is unthinkable for Davis; her voice is her identity, her emancipation. It’s still daunting, though. “Should I say it? Should I not? What’s a good hashtag? Is there going to be some kind of silent backlash, where I just stop getting phone calls? Stop getting jobs?”
And, as if those questions aren’t formidable enough, here’s another: How could Davis ever address everything that demands addressing when racism in this country is both subtle and systemic? I’ve watched Davis do video interviews with white men (like Tom Hanks, in Variety’s Actors on Actors series) and Black women (like Oprah Winfrey, for OWN). The difference is remarkable. Of course Davis is a skilled code switcher. She’d have to be. But her openness in Winfrey’s presence is markedly different to the glassy, careful facade she maintains around Hanks, who for whatever reason, and maybe it’s just excitement or inexperience as an interviewer constantly interrupts her.
Davis brings up Vanity Fair’s own history of inclusiveness, or lack thereof and fair enough. “They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers,” she says. “But that’s a lot of magazines, that’s a lot of beauty campaigns. There’s a real absence of dark-skinned Black women. When you couple that with what’s going on in our culture, and how they treat Black women, you have a double whammy. You are putting us in a complete cloak of invisibility.”
She agreed to star as Annalise in How to Get Away With Murder, as well as serve as a producer, to try to reshape and expand the Overton window for Black women to make moral ambiguity, bisexuality, and wigless, makeup-free grief part of the conversation.
This year, in the New York Times, filmmaker and journalist Kellee Terrell described Annalise as “a pop-culture revelation” and “one of the most complicated black women in television history.” Still, an earlier Times piece lingers like a toxic cloud. In 2014, critic Alessandra Stanley prompted a backlash with her review of the show, describing executive producer Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman” and proclaiming, jaw-droppingly, that Davis was “less classically beautiful than [Kerry] Washington.”
Davis isn’t furious about the Times piece, but neither will she dismiss it as a random or meaningless event. “Whatever her name is from the New York Times…just write a review!” She has to pause here, because I am laughing. “In not just writing a review, you have revealed your own underlying racism. All you see is a Black woman, that’s it. You don’t see a woman.”
Davis draws strength from both the Black women who made a path for her and the little girls, like her daughter, following in her footsteps. “We have survived a hellified history.”
“People share their stories with me a lot,” she continues. I nod to her over Zoom. Of course they do. “People hug me in grocery stores. Parking lots at Target.” Stores like Target and Vons, she adds, are her “happy place.” When I consider the little girl she once was, it makes sense. They’re pristine, fluorescent landscapes of the semi-affordable trappings of human dignity a little grocery, a little fashion, a little décor.
As with many of us, the pandemic has given Davis a taste of a slower life. “I don’t put any limits on myself,” she says. “But I feel the disillusionment of being busy…. My work is not all of me.” She pauses, then adds with suppressed mirth: “I used to say when I was younger, Acting is not what I do, it’s who I am. I look back at myself like, what the hell were you talking about?” She laughs her bell-like laugh.
I think I understand. Acting helped her find her voice. But she has discovered that her worth transcends her talent.
“To the world she’s a warrior,” says Octavia Spencer. “To those of us who love her, she’s simply our sister.”
By Sonia Saraiya
Photography By Dario Calmese
Styled By Elizabeth Stewart
Hair By Jamika Wilson; Makeup By Autumn Moultrie; Manicure By Christina Aviles Aude; Set Design By Lizzie Lang; Art Director, Natalie Matutschovksy; Produced On Location By Westy Productions; For Details, Go To Vf.com/credits
This article originally appeared on Vanity Fair