Suicide Squad actress Viola Davis recently claimed in an interview promoting her recent Showtime series, The First Lady, that in order to succeed in Hollywood “you either have to be a black female version of a white ideal, or you have to be white.”
Davis’ comments came in an interview with The Guardian’s Diana Evans where it appears Davis was speaking about her time in the 1990s when she started her career in acting.
Evans describes it thus, “As a Black woman entering the profession in the 1990s, her chances of success were even slimmer, and she quickly became aware of the double affront of racism and colourism, the scenario that in order to succeed ‘you either have to be a Black female version of a white ideal, or you have to be white’.”
From there Evans goes on to recount how Davis talked to her about her time at the Juilliard School and that the school and its faculty wanted to create the “perfect white actor” that is “something devoid of joy but steeped in technique.”
Davis specifically told Evans, “There is no set rule to how a character should be played. That was my issue with Juilliard. Whatever character I play, I’m not gonna play with the same palette as my white counterparts, because I’m different.”
“My voice is different. Who I am is different,” Davis elaborated. “It was like, ‘Your voice is too deep, you’re too hard. So you have to be light, but you have to be light like a 90lb white girl, you can’t be your light.’”
The Suicide Squad actress went on to state, “I think that sometimes, everything that you are can crumble under the weight of Eurocentric and white-centric notions.”
“There’s nowhere for someone like me to go – nowhere,” she explained. “I got a wide nose, big lips, dark skin – I mean, where do I go? Look at me – I might as well walk through the doors of Juilliard and walk my ass out!”
Davis clearly didn’t walk her butt out of Julliard as she graduated from the school in 1993. In fact, just six years later she would receive an Obie Award for her role as Ruby McCollum in the off-Broadway play Everybody’s Ruby. In 2001 she won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as Tonya in the Broadway production of King Hedley II.
Davis will go into further detail on much of this in her upcoming memoir titled Finding Me. The Guardian would publish an excerpt of it where Davis details, “Attending Juilliard in the late 80s, it was arduous listening and watching white guest actors perform, white playwrights coming in to speak, white projects, white characters, a European approach to the work, speech, voice, movement. Everyone was geared toward moulding and shaping you into a perfect white actor.”
“The unspoken language was that they set the standard. That they’re better. I’m a dark-skinned Black actress with a deep voice. No matter how much I adhere to the training, when I walk out into the world I will be seen as a dark-skinned Black woman with a deep voice,” Davis continued.
“Hell, when I got out there in the world, I would be called for jobs based on … me. I had to make peace with that,” she wrote. “And I admit, there are some classical playwrights that I never want to perform anyway!”
Davis would go on to claim at Julliard she “felt racially and individually neutered by a philosophy built on forgetting about ourselves and birthing someone artistically acceptable.”
“Juilliard forced me to understand the power of my Blackness. I spent so much of my childhood defending it, being ridiculed for it. Then in college proving I was good enough. I had compartmentalised me. At Juilliard, I was mad,” she recalled.
After recalling a speech she gave for the school’s Martin Luther King celebration, Davis detailed, “There was silence. I was speaking my truth. It was a truth fraught with the pain of everything that had ever been dumped on me consciously or unconsciously. Suddenly, like an elephant who is being slayed for its tusk, I was fighting back, fighting for my space.”
“Every year, I would try to squeeze myself into every project and every character. I thought I had to,” she relayed. “Corsets and huge European wigs that never fit over my braids. Listening to classmates ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over the beautiful costumes, and imagining how awesome life would be back in the 1780s. I kept wanting to scream it. ‘Shit!!! I’m different than you!! If we went back to 1780, we couldn’t exist in the same world! I’m not white!'”
The excerpt concludes, “The absolute shameful objective of this training was clear– – make every aspect of your Blackness disappear. How the hell do I do that? And more importantly, WHY??!!! None of my counterparts had to perfect Jamaican, southern, urban dialect to be considered excellent. ‘I am BLACK!!! I’m dark with big lips and a wide nose and thighs. I’m Viola!!’
Davis’ career in film and TV would eventually pick up as well. She would win a Screen Actors Guild Award and be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Help in 2011. Eventually she landed the lead role in How to Get Away with Murder, which she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015.
Speaking to The Guardian, Davis revealed that she insisted her character Annalise Keating would remove her wig in the show’s first season claiming that it would be “showing an image that isn’t palatable to the oppressor.”
It’s unclear what Davis is even talking about here. It comes off as the ramblings of a mad woman given the show was set in 2014 when it first aired on ABC and her character is married to a white man albeit the show’s pilot ends with her character questioning her husband on why a naked photo of him is on a dead girl’s phone.
Interestingly, earlier in the interview Davis did admit she had lost her mind during the pandemic. She told Evans, “I lost my mind during the pandemic.”
She detailed, “I just wandered around this house like Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Regardless, despite claiming that removing the wig is “showing an image that isn’t palatable to the oppressor,” Davis then asserted that she hopes Hollywood and society at large will end up in a place “where the show is just the human being and the human event. It’s not you being a metaphor for a larger social issue.”
She continued, “It’s not you going to a movie theatre and walking out going, ‘What did it mean for that Black man to be in that role? What do you think they were ultimately saying?'”
“I feel that as soon as we move away from metaphoric land and get into the land where people put their butts in the seat and their only investment is to follow you through your story, that’s when we will have really changed,” she asserted. “You don’t have to be crying over your dead son’s body that’s just been killed in a drive-by shooting for your emotions to be valuable.”
While she claims that is the goal she wants, just last year she shared a quote from Malcolm X and a meme criticizing making Juneteenth a federal holiday instead of a number of other bullet points that includes reparations, stop police violence, voting rights, and talking about race in schools.”
It’s also not lost on me that Davis’ cry of racism seems completely unfounded given she’s probably one of the most recognized actors today. Clearly you don’t have to be white or a black female version of a white ideal whatever that even means to succeed.
What do you make of Davis’ commentary and accusations of racism?