Viola Davis was a wonderful actress. She was great before she won an Oscar (for her supporting role in Denzel Washington’s 2016 film version of August Wilson’s Fences), and even before her earlier nominations (for John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 Doubt and Tate Taylor’s 2011 Help). In other words, she was great before legions of film critics and moviegoers finally began making the “water is wet” observation that Black actresses weren’t getting the film roles, or the acclaim, they deserved—and if television was ahead of the curve on that one, it wasn’t by much. Even in the early 2000s, as she was just beginning to shape her career, Davis was so astonishingly, subtly multidimensional—as the somber, clear-eyed Dr. Gordon in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, or as a long-absent mother in Washington’s Antwone Fisher, devastating in a nearly wordless scene—that she took a kind of ownership of the films around her, staking her own territory even if you couldn’t immediately match her face to her name. Everyone now knows that Davis is a great actor. It took only 20 years.
To read Davis’ elegantly written but sometimes harrowing memoir, Locating Me, is to understand just how hard this spectacular performer has worked to build the career and life she has today—and to acknowledge that even for a performer as outrageously gifted and dedicated as Davis is, the ingredient X known as luck can never be underestimated. Davis begins the book by sharing a story about her childhood. It was a difficult time for Davis to come to terms with her traumatized upbringing. At age 8, in the early 1970s, this “competitive but shy” little girl challenged a classmate at her school in Central Falls, R.I., to a footrace. She decided to take off her shoes because they were too big. And though she didn’t win the race—it was a tie—the boy was still humiliated. The bullying at the hands of her schoolmates, already a constant, only intensified; the minute classes ended, the boys at her school, nearly all of them white, would chase her “like dogs hunting prey.” Of that bullying, Davis writes, “This was one more piece of trauma I was experiencing—my clothes, my hair, my hunger, too—and my home life being the big daddy of them all. The attitude, anger and competitiveness were my only weapons.”
Continue reading: Viola Davis: ‘I Feel Like I Was a Total Rebel Being an Actor’
Davis’s story begins with this statement. Although she describes her childhood life in a straightforward manner, Davis never denies the horrors of living through them. Her father, Dan, a onetime racetrack horse groomer who drank heavily and often went on violent rampages, often beat Davis’ mother, Mae Alice, in front of Davis and her siblings, who would eventually number six in all. For much of her childhood, Davis and her family lived in a building she and her sisters came to refer to, with a shiver, as simply “128,” cramped quarters crawling with rats. Their family struggled to get enough food and was frequently without heat. Davis was also isolated from her community: even though her neighborhood had other Black families, these were Cape Verdeans who self-identify as Portuguese. “They would kill you if you called them Black,” she writes. She loved school but never received the affirmation and attention she desired. She was prone to bedwetting and would arrive at school often smelling of urine. Teachers resent her for this, while lecturing about hygiene when she couldn’t keep her own life together.
It might seem hard to square that angry, defensive child—a kid with all the odds stacked against her—with the actor who would eventually go on to study at Juilliard, where she railed against the school’s fixation on trying to ameliorate the “Blackness” of performers of color, all in the service of the classical (read “white” tradition), and to win two Tony awards. (She won her first in 2001, for Wilson’s King Headley II, and her second in 2010, for her performance as Rose Lee Maxson in Wilson’s Fences,This was the exact same role which would win her an Oscar six years later in the film version.
In 2014, Davis won an Emmy for her role in Annalise Kating’s starring part. How to Escape MurderThe section on Locating MeIn which she describes how difficult she tried to give her character depth and dimension, it may be the strongest link between the smart, stubborn and anxious child she was and today’s Davis, an uncompromising performer that weaves in truths without compromise into all she does. “I am a dark-skinned woman,” Davis writes. “Culturally, there is a spoken and unspoken narrative rooted in Jim Crow. It tells us that dark-skinned women are simply not desirable… In the past we’ve been used as chattel, fodder for inhumane experimentation, and it has evolved into invisibility. How it plays out in entertainment is that we are relegated to best friends, to strong, loudmouth, sassy lawyers, and doctors.”
Continue reading:Viola Davis is tired of Hollywood treating Black women like sidekicks
The role of Annalise Keating—whom Davis describes “as a sexual, smart, vulnerable, possibly sociopathic, highly astute, criminal defense attorney”—both freed something in Davis and changed the landscape of what Black women characters could be. “I never saw anyone on network TV who looked like me playing a role like this.” And yet suddenly, Davis was playing that role, kicking away her own ingrained insecurities to do so.
If Locating Me is largely a chronicle of the hard work required to overcome adversity, it’s also a wealth of meat-and-potatoes advice for all aspiring actors. Davis points out that “95% of actors do not work and less than 1% make $50,000 or more a year.” (This is where luck comes in.) Davis also suggested that, while actors are proud to be skilled in their art, being mindful of others is the real foundation. “An actor’s work is to be an observer of life. Because that would not be studying life, my job is not to learn from other actors. As much as I can, I study people.”
Davis devotes a few paragraphs here and there to her health battles with alopecia and fibroid tumors, but she seems to prefer to talk about joy—particularly her courtship with and subsequent marriage to fellow actor Julius Tennon, whom she met on the set of Steven Bochco’s City of AngelsIn the 2000s. She writes with a straightforward, soft voice and is often charming. As she describes the acting coach who was able to see something in her when she was a teenager and was a teacher for the federally-funded Upward Bound program. His name was Ron Stetson and he was, she writes, “the coolest, most handsome, unique, dynamic individual I had ever met. His car was a wrecked mess. This was quite cool. He put a sheet of plastic in its place so you wouldn’t fall out or get wet from the rain.” Stetson and the other instructors in the program changed Davis’ life: “They blew a hole in my world and opened up a new space that I could occupy.”
It took the rest of the world a while to see the remarkable woman who occupied that spot. The early 2000s were around the time that SolarisAnd Antwone Fisher—in other words, as Davis was starting to garner acclaim but wasn’t yet famous—a film writer I know pitched a story on her to the New York Times. To hear my friend tell it, the editor sighed and said that quite a few other writers had pitched the same story, but that she didn’t yet feel Davis was “big” enough to warrant even a small profile. As a culture, we’re now racing to correct our past shortsightedness, to spot and celebrate the talents of performers who are Black, without first relegating them to that convenient folder labeled “Black performers.” Davis writes of her exasperation at how, even now, there are still so few leading roles for Black women. Davis celebrates being herself. That constant seeking is perhaps the key to what makes her a great performer—a gift she passes along to us with every performance, hard-earned but given away as freely as sunlight.
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