Viola Davis “Drops the Mic” on Hollywood’s Portrayal of Black Women

Award-winning Actress and Producer Viola Davis recently made headlines while accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Power 100 Breakfast. Ms. Davis used the platform to speak her mind about the importance of truthful and authentic narratives, and she brought her “A-Game.” Her December 5, 2018, speech was so powerful that it made international headlines. and the video of her speech is still making its way around social media. It has been viewed more than 500,000 times—you can see it here.

Black characters, she told the audience. which included some of the most powerful people in the industry, have repeatedly been marginalized in Hollywood, while white people have been displayed as complex and multidimensional.

“We have to be maternal, we have to be the savior, we have to make that white character feel better. we don’t have vaginas as black women,” she said. “I got tired of celebrating movies that didn’t have me in it. I don’t mean me as Viola, I mean me as a black woman.”

During her speech at the breakfast, Ms. Davis said actors of color have to contend with “people who don’t see you, people who stereotype you, people who take your pathology, your complexity, everything away from you. (You have) to water yourself down in order to meet the standards of the community that is in charge, which is not mine.”

She added: “Everything that I am and we are is what makes art in this world rich,”

Ms. Davis’s comments further amplified the remarks she made last year during an interview with the New York Times in which she shared regrets for some roles she had taken. She cited the film, The Help, because she felt it did not accurately represent the authentic experiences of the maids it portrayed. In a recent interview with Variety, Ms. Davis noted that she was not criticizing the film’s cast and creative team, but was referring to the story of the Black women as a “one-dimensional version of who we are.”

Ms. Davis called on Hollywood to stop attempting to “tame” people into conformity, and she praised the “people who just dare,” who “embrace the truth,” such as director/writer/producer Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) and director/writer Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), for pursuing their work and refusing to be silenced.

Ms. Davis shared how this attempt to silence voices of people of color led her and her husband, actor/producer Julius Tennon, to launch JuVee Productions in 2011. The company produces independent film, television, theater, VR, and digital content across all spaces of narrative entertainment and has several award-wining productions. Last year, the company signed a “first-look” deal with Amazon Studios,

Ms. Davis is the winner of an Oscar, Emmy and two Tony Awards. Last year, she was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year. Despite the obstacles she’s faced in Hollywood, she is truly the embodiment of the encouragement she gave the audience: “We must not water ourselves down” to meet the standards of the people in charge. She ended her speech with encouragement to empower Black youth saying. “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. There is no limit to how to see people of color.”

I love that! The more we allow ourselves to be empowered by who we are—our identity, limitless potential, contributions and intelligence—the more we are empowered to defy stereotypes and limited expectations; the more we’re able to make contributions to diversity, inclusion and equity efforts and open doors for others. We can create the change we want to see.

My platform is the arts, not Hollywood. It’s the place where I see that my work is making a difference; it is effecting change. I also believe change first starts with each of us—connecting with our passion; our mission—and pursuing our goals. I believe when we are connected and committed to our mission, we have the power to change our destiny and that we do not have to be victims of the past.

I write about these issues because I believe awareness and consciousness are the fertile soil from which change takes root and flourishes. I know many of the readers of Arts and Culture Connections are already doing this, and I sincerely applaud all of your efforts, especially in light of the numerous obstacles you may be facing. I hope, as Ms. Davis encourages us, that you will persevere this year with a fierce determination like never before to be “people who dare…people who refuse to be silenced.”