Viola Davis

Viola Davis’s much-discussed Cannes Film Festival interview underlines an important topic that you may have missed

Viola Davis revealed that a director continued to call her by his maid’s name, but there’s another equally important part of the Cannes Film Festival interview that you may have missed. 

In the canon of great acting talent, there are a few names – no matter what role they’re playing – that continue to wow us. Viola Davis is undoubtedly one of them.

But even for an actor of such great renown, Davis is under no allusion about the inequalities that persist in film today. Speaking to Variety at Cannes Film Festival, she revealed that she still faces racial microaggressions “all the time”, and the clip from her Women In Motion talk has garnered much attention on Twitter from shocked fans. 

In it, Davis details an exchange with one director in particular. She said: “I had a director who did that to me. He said, ‘Louise!’ I knew him for 10 years and he called me Louise and I find out that it’s because his maid’s name is Louise.

“I was maybe around 30 at the time, so it was a while ago. But what you have to realize is that those microaggressions happen all the time.”

While it’s a shocking admission, the part of the interview that hasn’t received as much attention – and definitely should – is the simple comparison Davis makes about the kinds of roles she’d love to perform in versus the roles people would actually watch her in. 

“If I wanted to play a mother whose family lives in a low-income neighbourhood and my son was a gang member who died in a drive-by shooting, I could get that made,” Davis said.

“If I played a woman who was looking to recreate herself by flying to Nice and sleeping with five men at the age of 56 – looking like me, I’m going to have a hard time pushing that one, even as Viola Davis.” 

Viola Davis

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The reason why? The actor simply said that “people can’t reconcile the Blackness with the spiritual awakening and the sexuality. It’s too much for them.”

After winning an Emmy award for her role in How To Get Away With Murder, fans hailed the series for finally bringing the kind of on-screen representation that TV had been crying out for. But Davis admits that the show didn’t necessarily open the door for more TV opportunities for women who look like her.

“I know that when I left How To Get Away With Murder that I don’t see a lot of dark-skin women in lead roles on TV and not even in streaming services,” Davis said.

“And that ties into ideology and ethos and mentality – and that’s speaking in the abstract. Why aren’t you hiring a dark-skin woman when she walks in the room and you say she blows you away? Create space and storytelling for her so, when she thrives, she’s not thriving despite her circumstance but thriving because of her circumstance.” 

How To Get Away With Murder
How to Get Away with Murder: Viola Davis as Annalise Keating.

While speaking about being rejected for past roles, Davis said that a lot of the times she was passed over was because of her race or because the hiring talent did not find her “pretty enough”. The latter reason “really gets on my damn nerves”, Davis admits. “It breaks my heart and it makes me angry.”

“A lot of it is based on race. It really is. Let’s be honest. If I had my same features and I were five shades lighter, it would just be a little bit different.

“And if I had blonde hair, blue eyes and even a wide nose, it would be even a little bit different than what it is now. We could talk about colourism, we could talk about race. It pisses me off, and it has broken my heart – on a number of projects, which I won’t name.” 

The topics of colourism and racism are things that Davis has continued to talk about throughout her expansive career. Back in 2018 at a Woman In The World conference, she spoke about being told she’s a “Black Meryl Streep”.

She said: “I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver. They all came out of Yale, they came out of Juilliard, they came out of NYU. They had the same path as me, and yet I am nowhere near them. Not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, nowhere close to it.”

Davis’s recent interview is yet another reminder that the star isn’t afraid to home in on the important inequalities that persist in Hollywood. It’s an integral one, that’s for certain, but if you needed a reminder about how important diverse production and behind-the-scenes talent is, this is yet another. 

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