Viola Davis covers Vanity Fair, in the first VF cover shot by a Black photographer. The photoshoot is so good and she looks amazing. The NY Times has an interview with the man who shot this cover, Dario Calmese. He said that he had Viola pose like the haunting 1863 portrait The Scourged Back, showing the scars on an enslaved man’s back. (While these photos are getting praise, the decision to have Viola recreate this photo has been criticized as linking dark skinned women with pain and trauma, see this tweet.) Vanity Fair is edited by Radhika Jones, who came on in 2017 after Graydon Carter retired. She’s run eight covers featuring people of color, and up until she took charge VF had only run 17 covers total featuring solo Black people in 35 years. Things are changing over there, gradually, and Viola’s interview was of course a joy to read. I love watching her interviews and reading about her.
The story opens with the fact that Viola, Octavia Spencer and Yvette Nicole Brown had a small protest together in their neighborhood during the early BLM protests this year. (I knew about that because I follow them all on social media. I didn’t see any photos, but I understand why they didn’t post any.) Viola talked about her career, about being a Black woman in Hollywood, and about the impact she has on people. (My words, she was matter-of-fact about it, but there’s a reason everyone wants to hug her.) The whole profile was so good that it’s hard to know what to excerpt and I recommend you read the story at the source.
On if she’d protested before
“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.’”
On playing Ma Rainey in the adaptation of August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
“He writes for us. 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 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.”
On the lack of opportunity for young Black actresses
“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.”
What she says when people ask her why she did television for so long
“I always ask them, What movies? What were those movies?… Listen, I got Widows, but if I just relied on the Hollywood pipeline… No, there are not those roles.”
On commenting about pay inequality and harassment in her industry
“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.”
On Vanity Fair’s previous lack of inclusiveness
“They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers, 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 loves going to Target and meeting people
“People share their stories with me a lot… People hug me in grocery stores. Parking lots at Target.” Stores like Target and Vons, she adds, are her “happy place.”
Viola explained the issue of women speaking up so well. If it’s bad for all women, imagine how bad it is for Black women. As she said “All you have to do is maybe roll your eyes, and that’s it.” She also brought up the white savior trope in movies and how Black stories are watered down to be acceptable to a white audience. She’s spoken before about her regret in starring in The Help, and she mentioned that and said she “feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth].” She said that film was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.” (Incidentally, the author of the book it was based on was sued by the maid whose life story she appropriated.)
In October, Viola did an interview with Jimmy Kimmel where she excitedly talked about playing Ma Rainey! You can see that here. She said she loved wearing the fat suit and that she “told them that I wanted really big titties.” I thought that was so cute. Filming wrapped on that last August, but there’s no release date yet that I can find. It’s coming out on Netflix.
Viola went viral earlier this month when a 2018 interview with comments she’d made about her career got shared on social media. She said, in part, that pay inequality for women of color is egregious in Hollywood and that women like Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore get so many more roles, opportunities and pay. She worked in television for so long because film leads are scarce. All of this continues to happen to her despite the fact that she’s only a Grammy away from an EGOT. She needs to narrate all the books.