Viola Davis Speaks at Smith

Professor Andrea Hairston and actress Viola Davis discussed Davis's career and the obstacles that actresses of color face. Katherine Hazen '18 News Editor

As award-winning actress Viola Davis walked onto the stage of John M. Greene Hall last week, the audience met her with a standing ovation. The audience erupted into applause before she could finish her first sentence.

For the next hour, Davis — famous for such roles as Annalise Keating in “How To Get Away With Murder,” Aibileen Clark in “The Help” and Mrs. Miller in “Doubt” — shared lessons she has learned on life, self-love, success and failure and navigating opportunity and identity as a woman of color in Hollywood.

“My life prepared me [for acting]. I was born into an ordinary world, but I didn’t fit into that world,” said in beginning her conversation with Professor Andrea Hairston.

Davis, who grew up in what she describes as “abject poverty,” graduated from Julliard where she learned to implement self-awareness in her acting and her everyday life.

Davis has performed in starring roles in film, television and theatre — the latter seems to be her favorite. Theatre is the one that truly captures the human experience, in Davis’s opinion. “I fit with that,” she said. “I can be human, flawed, messy.”

In her famous acceptance speech for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, breaking barriers as the first black woman to have won in that category, Davis spoke about the lack of opportunities afforded to women of color in Hollywood, which she spoke of in more detail last week.

“I have the same background as a Julianne Moore or a Meryl Streep but none of their opportunities,” she said in response to Diva Schlesinger’s ’18 question for advice for women of color aspiring to act, encouraging those young women to “be you.”

In response to a question about her integrity, Davis spoke of her experience in “The Help,” in which she played a maid in civil rights-era Jackson, Miss. Davis said she knew that she would receive both the attention of film critics and black leaders as the film wasn’t truly about the maids’ perspectives, so she fought hard to give her character some dimension.

However, her most-famous character of Annalise Keating possesses dimensions that surpass the roles typically ascribed to women of color, particularly to dark-skinned black women.

“I am never going to be considered cute,” Davis said. “Anytime a character is described as attractive, I could forget about it before I walked into a room.” But the character of Annalise is sexualized, somewhat sociopathic and “not typically black,” and the revelation that a character like Annalise could look like her seemed to be a turning moment for her.

On the topic of gender inequality in Hollywood, something Jennifer Lawrence spoke of recently to mixed reviews, Davis gave her full support but didn’t see it as a primary part of the agenda for women of color in Hollywood.

“There is no actress of color thinking of gender inequality,” she said. “We’re just trying to make as much as our white counterparts. We are fighting to be seen as commercially viable — we’re not even thinking of the gender part.”

The event had been highly anticipated after it was unveiled last semester — tickets sold out in less than a week when they were made available last month.

“I don't think [the] event could have possibly gone better,” said Lena Wilson ’16, chair of Student Events Committee. “Though Viola is such an incredible presence, she is also just such a warm, down-to-earth person, and it is incredible that so many people were able to see both of those sides of her [last] Wednesday. There were a lot of profound moments, as well as genuinely hilarious ones.”

“I was inspired to hear the parts of be backstory that aren't so glamorous; no one talks about the poverty and the depression. Her speech allowed me to rethink the ways I interact with myself in times of success — and, more importantly, failure,” said Sophia Buchanan ’18. “She may have been a cool speaker to have on campus — a cool woman speaker even. But for myself, as a member of the black community on campus, it was so much more than that.”

As Davis left, she received another deafening standing ovation.