Despite doing work that’s won her two Tony Awards, two Academy Award nominations, two Screen Actor Guild Awards, a Golden Globe nod, and a spot on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list, actress Viola Davis is still waiting to be seen by Hollywood. She will finally get her due this September, not on the big screen, but in ABC’s latest show from Shonda Rhimes’ company, How To Get Away With Murder, which premieres September 25th.
“I don’t have Angelina Jolie/Reese Witherspoon power,” she told More Magazine in its September issue. “I can’t walk into a room and go, ‘I want a movie where I play someone sexy, and I want to be the producer on it.’ I don’t have A-list Caucasian actress choices – that’s the bottom line.”
While Hollywood’s abysmal numbers speak for itself — out of the top 500 films of all time, only 6 star women of color, 5 of whom are animated characters, and none of which are directed by women — Davis’s comments add a human component to what the numbers already tell us: It’s harder to succeed as a woman of color in Hollywood, no matter how talented you are.
Davis addressed the issue again in a recent panel hosted by the BuzzFeed Brews series. At first, she demurred, saying “Ugh, I’ve said that statement, and I want to take it back,” but it seemed that rather than wanting to backtrack, she was exasperated by how much she had to explain herself and that how her “simple” observation made headlines. For Davis, this isn’t a new revelation or a controversial statement. It’s a fact about her life and experience and her treatment within Hollywood.
But she expanded on her comments for our benefit: “After a while, you get tired of being the third girl from the left,” she said. “I want the flashy roles. I want to be No. 1 on the call sheet. I feel that I’ve worked long enough and hard enough that I deserve that. Yes, in film, you do get a lot of supporting roles, as an actor of color. You do. And I feel like, now, I want the flash!”
After 26 years in the business, “you expect the world to see you,” she continued, adding, “but then you go out there and you see all these walls that are put up there because you are a woman or a certain age or a certain hue, and then it’s shocking that people don’t see you. I would say. ‘I am good!’ People would say to me, ‘It’s a small part, but you’re going to be playing opposite so-and-so.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t care about me playing opposite so-and-so. I want so-and-so’s role!’”
It’s tough to speak up about Hollywood’s blind spots, because when you’re the one being slighted, there’s paradoxically more pressure on you to fit in, to seem like you’re easy to work with, and to be thankful for even getting a shot in the business. But Davis, who will finally have the “flash” with Rhimes’s show, isn’t the only one using her platform to speak out.
Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson recently told Ebony Magazine that “I’m treated like I’m on the D-list” and that she’s “still being considered with actresses who haven’t done half the stuff I’ve achieved.” Henson, who appears opposite actor Idris Elba in No Good Deed (out today), was unceremoniously axed from CBS’s Person of Interest in 2013.
We see this again and again with women of color in Hollywood. In 2013, Forbes writer Dorothy Pomerantz wondered: “Why Can’t Halle Berry Catch a Break?” observing that she’s had a string of “either very bad luck or she’s made some very bad decisions,” before the writer surmised that it may have something to do with being a middle-aged black woman in an industry dominated by white men. And, just months ago, EW asked why Lupita Nyong’o can’t snag a role that’s worthy of her, despite her A-List status. Too often, we see talented black actresses described as “overlooked,” “underrated” or “supporting” other stars, forever waiting to get their due.
Big studios in Hollywood might not get it, but television is starting to. This is, in large part, due to the success of Rhimes’ hits, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, which feature a diverse cast and crew. Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo, who participated in BuzzFeed’s panel alongside Davis and Scandal star Kerry Washington, highlighted Rhimes’ work, saying, “Thank god that Shonda Rhimes had this agenda to make television look like life, to make it look like the real world.”
She criticized Hollywood’s executives for their “archaic” ways: “Finally, the networks, who are operating on a completely archaic system, once something succeeds and makes money, [they realize], Oh, what a brilliant idea that is. Let’s give a black woman a job,” she said passionately, mocking them. ‘Because there’s no black women in the world, so why would you ever think of that before? All of sudden, Oh, black women can make money, too? Oh. Oay. Well, let’s fill up the screen.’ It’s such an outdated, archaic system. Thank god for Shonda Rhimes, because, you know, without her wisdom and wit and creativity behind it, giving it the right stage, they just don’t see it.”
And thank god for Davis, who has spoken up about issues that too many women of color are discouraged from raising.