The room hushed. And Viola Davis began to speak.
In a rousing end to opening night of the 9th annual Women in the World Summit, Viola Davis discussed equality in Hollywood, the long-lasting effects of sexual assault, and her urge to tell human stories — not just ones with a social message.
The push for equality in Hollywood has already created change, the acclaimed actress said in conversation with MSNBC host and author Joy-Ann Reid. “I do see a moment becoming a movement,” Davis said, noting that people are looking for female-driven narratives and are more conscious about hiring female directors. “Women are much more aggressive out there in terms of getting what they want.”
But what Davis wants to focus her laser-sharp eyes on isn’t the red carpet — it’s the personal aspects of sexual assault.
“Listen, I’m an actress. I want my Sophie’s Choice. I want to be in a great John Ford movie. I want be the black girl accepting her third and fourth Oscar. I have those visions, I have those dreams. But I want to reiterate to people that I don’t want what’s going on in Hollywood to be a metaphor for what the movement is,” she said. “Once that sexual assault happens, women always say that that’s the day they died,” with long-lasting issues like body dysmorphia and suicide rates traced back to sexual assault.
Davis wants to focus on the 15-year-old abuse survivor, bringing her from that traumatic moment to getting a rape kit, to healing, becoming a survivor and finally an overcomer. “We have 324 million people in this country and 51 percent are women, and when one is traumatized, it escalates into rage issues, all kinds of things. That to me is appalling. That’s the sweet spot. It’s not just about an actress wanting to promote her career.”
The reason it’s so easy to turn a blind eye to these stories, Davis mused, is because American culture looks to entertainment for escape — and Hollywood has spent decades watering down real issues to make it palatable to people who just want to munch their popcorn, swig their Diet Coke and eat Sour Patch Kids.
Moviegoers who make up the prime demographic for box office receipts — males between the ages of 18 and 34 — don’t want to see a woman who has been sexually assaulted or has PTSD, Davis said. Rather than a complete woman, they’re shown figments of fantasy.
That’s also why this triple-threat, award-winning actress says she still struggles to be seen as someone other than the black Meryl Streep. “Jim Crow did a job on us,” she said, pointing to post-slavery policies that essentially kept African Americans in a new type of bondage. “So when you have me coming in as someone’s love interest, it doesn’t compute, because no one thinks I’m pretty, no one thinks a black woman darker than a paper bag is pretty. They don’t think she’s sexual, they think she’s more mannish, they associate her with more ‘earthy’ and ‘soulful’ and ‘sassy.’ ‘I see you more with an apron than rolling around in bed with someone,” she says. “That’s the American mindset and what it’s done is it’s seeped into art.”
That’s why she fought for Annalise Keating, her groundbreaking character in How to Get Away with Murder, to remove her wig in the first episode, solidifying her as a real woman, not one with flawless makeup who’s described as “cold” without reason. “I felt like if I took that wig off, and if I do this show for seven years, then it’s going to force the writer to write the woman,” she says. “And I know women. I’m sorry, not every woman who’s sexual is a size two. Not every women who’s sexual is walking like a supermodel, and not every women who’s sexual is lighter than a paper bag.”
Viola Davis and Joy-Ann Reid onstage at the Women in the World Summit in New York City.
The box office smash Black Panther revealed black audiences can open a movie, Davis pointed out — and she added that upcoming films by Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, and Steve McQueen will further prove the point. “Look at any studio in Hollywood at all the scripts they’re developing and 98 percent of them are predominantly Caucasian,” she says. “If you told them that, they wouldn’t be aware of it. It’s just built into our mindset.”
As for her biggest hurdle now, Davis spoke out about the presumption that actors of color must constantly be didactic. “Every time we’re on screen and every time we make a choice, the next question is, ‘What did that mean? What social statements are you making?’ There is no social statement,” she says. “The social statement is just … me.”
David said she is asked by people if she wants to play the first black female pilot. Or maybe the woman who blew up a town hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma? But stories championing a social message aren’t the only types of narratives she wants to tell — and they’re not the only ones she feels African-American actors are allowed to tell.
“Sometimes we just want to tell a story. We just want to be. We don’t always want to go up against the KKK. We don’t always want to come in and be like, ‘You think I’m a housewife, but I’m really not.’”
A devotion to telling human stories and working to perfect her craft was evident from the very beginning of her acting career. Her most joyful experience as an actor was working on Noodle Doodle Box, a play she and her sister Dolores created together at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. The drama department head told them to pick a play, and they directed, produced, made their own costumes, built the set, “laughed and cried and hugged,” she told the audience.
“They say in acting that the stage in a set is a sacred place,” Davis said. “You can have your shit, your piss, your mess, your joy, everything — and it’s just celebrated. You leave it all on the floor, and the more you leave it on the floor with the same amount of not holding back, the more celebrated it is. What happens is that you’re sort of healed from a lot of things.”
A photo of Viola Davis as a young girl was shared with the audience at the 2018 Women in the World Summit in New York City.
Through that play, Davis found a sense of solace from her difficult childhood, growing up in poverty with an abusive, alcoholic father. “Through the journey of leaving it all on the floor, exploring everything in rehearsal, messing up, making mistakes, and finally coming to that end point which was the play, I got closer to my sister,” she said. “And for me that’s perfect. For me that doesn’t always happen — sometimes it culminates into bad box office,” she added with a laugh.
Davis has expanded her reach into producing — a space that’s perhaps even more untouched by women than most in Hollywood. When Reid asked how women can find their way into that inner sanctum, wondering, “Do you have to be Viola Davis in order to do it?” Davis responded, “Yes, you have to be Viola Davis in order to do it. You have to be Meryl Streep in order to do it. You have to be Julianne Moore in order to do it.”
Building a career in Hollywood — or a life anywhere else — is a relay race, she said. You have to take the baton and pass it on to someone who can run the next leg. Problems, she said, only come up when the baton falls into the hands of the clueless.
“There are a lot of people in my profession who have no idea what they doing,” she said with a signature blunt honesty that’s anathema in Hollywood. “They have no idea what’s good or what’s bad. They have no idea what to fight for. They’d rather fight for what outfit the woman is wearing in the scene than how the scene is written.”
The solution is to walk into the room with strength and conviction and to ask for what you want, she says. “You have the baton,” she says. “What are you going to do with it?”