The truth can be freeing — but it can also be uncomfortable.
In the January 31 episode of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS, actor Viola Davis says: “There is no explaining where we are as people, and where we are as a country without blowing the lid off of this.” In a show about personal histories, hers is inextricably linked to the nation’s.
The Oscar winner joins Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the PBS program to track historical records, revisit Davis’ own personal history, and piece together her past. Other guests this season include Carol Burnett, Niecy Nash, Julia Roberts, Van Jones, Danny Trejo, and more. Each actor sits down with Gates as he reveals the results of DNA-analysis and other meticulous research to acquaint them with a supposedly distant past. Earlier this year, “Glass Onion” star Edward Norton confirmed a long-standing family rumor that he was descended from Pocahontas, who turned out to be his 12th great-grandmother.Davis shares her episode with “Succession” star Brian Cox, who faces emotional revelations of his own.
A clip from Davis’ episode shows a document in which a slave owner bequeaths slaves in his will, equating them to property. Davis is taken aback to see a human being referred to much like a piece of furniture. She and Gates discuss the implications of something as simple as this language, of how an entire system was set up to debase and dehumanize Black people in the United States. As one of the most decorated Black celebrities in Hollywood, it’s a painful but ever-present dichotomy in Davis’ life, and one she acknowledges explicitly.
“The same place that gave me an Oscar, gave me an Emmy, gave me two Tonys, gave me a really good life, is also the same country that enslaved my ancestors and saw them as property,” Davis says on the show. “It hurts my soul, it really does.”
Davis’ discoveries — airing just before the start of Black History Month — serve as a reminder that our country’s violent and bigoted history is not far behind it — and for many, not behind it at all.
Watch the full clip below. “Finding Your Roots” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on PBS.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.