Anatomy of a Black Actress: Viola Davis -The Toast

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LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 20: Actress Viola Davis accepts Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series award for 'How to Get Away with Murder' onstage during the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“It is of the utmost importance that a black child see on that screen someone who looks like him. Our children have been suffering from the lack of identifiable images as long as our children as been born.” James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier

“Toni Morrison said that as soon as a character of color is introduced in a story imagination stops…I mean, I’m a black woman from Central Falls, Rhode Island. I’m dark-skinned. I’m quirky. I’m shy. I’m strong. I’m guarded. I’m weak at times. I’m sensual. I’m not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways, and I will never see myself on screen.” Viola Davis, Entertainment Weekly


During an interview with Charlie Rose, Viola Davis described her dream: of her interest in the book The Help and participation in its filmic adaptation, she said that she was driven by the need and desire to show that Black women are part of the narrative and to tell their stories “in a way that is complicated and didactic.”

In that same incredibly vulnerable interview, she talks about what atrophies her dream and the barriers that prevent its fulfillment. Still talking about her needs and desire as an actress, she says: “Sometimes I have the fried chicken dinner that I am sinking my teeth into as if it’s a filet mignon and I want the filet mignon.” Here she describes both the lack of opportunity and the lack of diversity that most Black actresses face in Hollywood. I am not an actor, but I am a Black woman with dreams and desires, so I can imagine. I can imagine that actors are a voracious kind of people always looking for wild, multidimensional characters or concepts to embody. From Viola Davis’s testimonial and from simple observation, I can see that being a Black actress in Hollywood must be a very precarious, unstable situation characterized by a certain deprivation. The impossibility to live one’s dreams because of arbitrary reasons can only generate cynicism and frustration, yet Black actresses are not an endangered species. They are still there, present.

Acting is a wild dream to have as a Black woman, especially as a tall, dark-skinned Black woman in her fifties. If I always go back to Viola Davis’ body, to her complexion and her appearance, it is simply because acting is the art of incarnation. The body, especially the face, is utilized to capture all the attention. The peculiar situation of an actress like Viola Davis is that much of her job requires/involves a looking relationship with an audience that doesn’t want to look at her. Or one that will only concede to look at her under certain conditions: degraded, hypersexualized, ridiculed or bundled up in rehashed caricatures and insipid narratives. An audience that has not been trained to look at her the way she deserves to be looked at. She’s working in an industry that is more than complicit, if not the main culprit, in erasing, de-eroticizing and vilifying her body. Indeed, cinematic spaces have historically rejected the (dark-skinned) Black body, constructing it as abject, ugly, expendable and unable to inspire empathy and identification. This is the structure within which Viola Davis tries to exist and be visible.

“If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire.”

The question of resistance has become an obsession. At some point it became important for me to also focus in the many ways Black women resist misogyny, racism, erasure and cynicism. To borrow Claudia Rankine’s words from a Guardian interview: how do Black women keep their body visible? Viola Davis is a perfect example to answer that qustion because she works in an industry where being visible is paramount.

In 2012, The Help came out. I was able to follow the controversy following the release of the film by reading articles from scholars but also on social media (mainly Tumblr) where the now annoyingly cult gif of Viola Davis’ character uttering “You is kind, you is smart, you is important” coexisted with virulent and valid criticism by Black women who deconstructed the tired, racist and revisionist tropes of the film using theoretical work and their own viewing experience.

In 2012, I read one of the most thought-provoking, transformative, illuminating essays: “The Oppositional Gaze” written by bell hooks, on Black female spectatorship. The main lesson I have taken from “The Oppositional Gaze” could be summarized by that phrase whose source I have not been able to find: “wherever there is oppression, there is resistance.” When Black women criticized The Help they were asserting their agency as spectators who would not accept Hollywood’s revisionism of their history. Within the oppressive spaces that are the movie theater and movie screen, it is possible for Black women to resist erasure, distortion, and dehumanizing images representing Black womanhood and Blackness. They can practice that oppositional, critical gaze or they can simply refuse to look at the screen and leave the theater for good.

Inevitably, Viola Davis and her co-star Octavia Spencer had to defend themselves and justify why they participate in such film. I think this is exactly where I started rooting for her, in that very moment when she had to justify her choices which she did with grace and clarity during an interview for Tavis Smiley. What I realized is that just like Black female spectators, Black actresses are able to resist. They must if they want to survive. They must if they want to pursue their dream. The criticisms leveled against Viola Davis for accepting the role of Aibileen Clark in The Help were valid but also dismissive. Is there something perverse about an actor accepting a degrading, poorly written role, participating in perpetuating lies about Black history, life, experience and identity? Yes. But there is also something perverse about us still going to the movies despite Hollywood’s history of racism. This is what navigating in this world entails for most of us, especially for Black women. Besides, there is fundamentally nothing wrong with playing a maid. Or a janitor, or a garbage truck driver.  What is wrong is Hollywood’s idea of what kind of life and inner life the maid can lead, how she can speak, what she can do, how she exists in the world. What we must bear in mind, especially when we are too quick to criticize Black actors’ choices to portray stereotypes or participate in degrading narratives, is that the actor who is playing cliché and the tired trope more than certainly had other desires that smashed up against Hollywood’s structural anti-Blackness and its impotence in providing challenging roles for them. The maid is portrayed by an actress who probably has something more in her than what the script is allowing her to give.


In 1993, French critic Luc Moullet introduced “the politique of the actor” in his book La Politique des Acteurs, focusing on the career of Hollywood leading men such as Cary Grant, John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Moullet’s idea inspired a series of books edited by Les Cahiers du Cinema which continues Moullet’s work by focusing on lead actors such as Leonardo Dicaprio, Meryl Streep, Robert Deniro and Al Pacino. Logically, the politique of the actor, which posits the actor as the creative source of a film, is interested in the careers of actors who have been able to accumulate lead roles, who’ve had a long and diversified filmography. There are of course Black actors who could be the subject of this series: Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Joséphine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Poitier, Pam Grier, but the contemporary actors who are most likely to have the kind of filmography deserving of analysis and study, of canonisation and mythology, are white.

But I am interested in the unconsidered, the one who desires but struggles to be visible, who is not welcome but who is still there. The sad truth is that if I decided to start such a book focusing on Viola Davis I wouldn’t have much to get my teeth into and that for arbitrary reasons. The cruelty of racism is that it kills dreams. It prevents artists from expressing themselves by censoring them. The order imposed by racism and misogyny has relegated Davis to barren supporting roles and secondary characters in film. How to erect my statue then? How can I start mythologizing Viola Davis, the artist, with such a meager filmography?

To me, for actors of colors working in Hollywood, auteurship is necessary. I think about Oscar Isaac, who had to radically change the script of Drive when he saw how racist the plot was against the character he was meant to embody. This is an example of a vital intervention in the creative process by an actor imposing his vision. In a way, they fill the gaps, “repair” an imagination that has been injured by centuries of racism. This is why criticizing actors’ choices of portraying stereotypes can be presumptuous and dismissive. Actors know best the system in which they must work. Black actors can have agency and margin to resist, and the way they do it is by doing what they know best — acting. We should pay attention as it is also our job as critical, engaged spectators to assess the strategies Black actors employ to escape Hollywood’s deadly, stifling racist & anti-Black imaginary. We should look at their performances not just as the product of Hollywood’s deadly imagination but also as the product of their own resistance, imagination and creativity.

The interest of the politique of the actor is that it gives actors agency and creative power. It reminds us that whether or not the actor is subordinated to the vision of the director, he’s still an artist who is creating something, this something we must assess, criticize and analyze. It tells us to focus on an actor’s idiosyncrasy, his gestures, his voice, a way of talking, recurrences of themes in his career choices in order to map a singularity and define a personal oeuvre. It makes sense then that the series called “Anatomy of An Actor” is dedicated to actors who have devoured the screen, who’ve imposed their presence. What we must examine closer is how Black actors, through their craft, performance and their own artistry are able to elevate these characters for the small space and time they are given in the script and onscreen. This is what most Black actors do. Black actors rarely play lead characters. They are given moments, guest appearances, supporting roles, a few lines to deliver. But in the end, script lines and indications are to the actor what aquarelle is to the painter, what marble can be to the sculptor. They can create vivid, wonderful characters even based on stereotypes, even in the short screen time they are granted. They do it with their bodies and their voices. It can be a gesture, a way of talking, walking, closing or opening the eyes, that suddenly makes a character real and multidimensional. Black creativity has always managed to deploy itself in confined spaces. I am talking about Vines, web series and music videos. I am talking about the few seconds during which a Black actor is asked to perform a line only to disappear off screen soon after.


If I were to write a book on Viola Davis’s auteurship now maybe it would be just a few pages long. I would focus on one scene which to me announced emergence of an actress: the wig scene in How To Get Away With Murder. The documentary aspect of that scene is what makes it significant. The camera, usually so intolerant and fearful, had suddenly no other choice but to document what it has avoided documenting for a long time. Here is Viola Davis’ face in all its truth, raw and vulnerable. Viola Davis is acutely aware of what her body represents in the collective imaginary so there is something audacious, bold and menacing about her exposing/showing herself like that. The scene exemplifies what Viola Davis has been doing ever since she walked the red carpet with her natural hair at the 84th Academy Awards. She’s been imposing herself, unveiling what is her main instrument as an actress: her body. When she removed that wig, her eyelashes and the rest of her makeup, unveiling her face and her natural hair, she wasn’t just humanizing the character of Annalise Keating or trying to root this character in the real, she was also forcing us to look at her, her deep dark skin, her nose, her mouth and her hair.

Viola Davis is not going anywhere. As spectators, our responsibility is to start training our gaze to look at her in a way that enables her to explore her creativity and express herself uncensored. In a way that is, if not loving, liberating.

I need Viola Davis now. I need to see her talking, moving, embodying lives and existing within the frame because I also believe that it is crucial and important that a Black child sees themselves on screen. I’ll go as far as to say that it is criminal and irresponsible to ask a child to go the movies, this ordinary, culturally and socially important activity, without providing a substantial, complex reflection of herself.


In a piece analyzing the work of British director Steve McQueen, the author pointed out the groping dimension of the gaze. Looking is touching. Years of going to the movies and watching TV have been and is very much still about touching white people’s bodies and being intimate with their lives and fantasies; fantasies which either include you in the most perverse ways or violently erase you. I think a lot about how much time I have spent staring at white people. To be honest, I have, especially the past few years, been very careful about what I put before my eyes. It’s not because I am scared of being swallowed by the screen like I was during childhood, of being alienated and damaged by white supremacy or whatever. (The damage is done and acknowledged, now is the time for contestation and reparations.) It’s more a question of affective investment and dedication of energy. Who am I watching? Who am I looking at? Who am I writing about? Whether it is their function or not, the movie and TV screens are places where we have been trained to look at certain bodies in a certain way. Some with reverence, kindness and admiration. Some with disgust or apathy.

If I want to keep a reasonable relationship with the movie screen, I need Viola Davis to be a central part of it. I need her strong, overwhelming, excessive presence on screen, her vision. I do not think that her sole presence could restore years of erasure and exclusion but it’s a good  start. That’s what we talk about when we talk about representation and seeing ourselves on screen. We are not just looking for an authentic, correct depiction and representation of our experience. We are not actually approaching the screen as a mirror. (I actually hate catching my reflection in a mirror.) Maybe instead of reflection I should use the word “recognition.” We want to feel like we exist, like we are part of this world.

But representation doesn’t matter. What matters is feeling alive in this world and being able to dream and fulfilling one’s dream. When we see complex Black characters, more than a reflection of ourselves on screen, we see Black men and women living their dream.

So we support Viola Davis’s dream. Acting is not just her dream, it is her duty.

“I don’t want anyone putting any limits on me.”

After The Help she bravely declared that she was done playing maids. There is nothing more threatening than a Black woman saying “I refuse.” A Black actress saying no takes risks as she does not have the privilege to refuse roles knowing, to borrow Ms. Davis own words, the “deficit” of roles for Black women in Hollywood. But this is something that Viola Davis has been doing for a few years now. Making her dreams, desires and needs clear. By saying “no” she is not burying or giving up on her career. On the contrary, she’s reviving it.    

Fanta Sylla is a writer based in a banlieue of Paris currently studying literature and philosophy. She has written for Black Girls Talking and Sight & Sound Mag.

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