Viola Davis Gets Real With Sway About Hollywood’s Race Problem (Video)
Viola Davis is no stranger to the inner workings of Hollywood and has experienced the benefits and the difficulties of a successful career. Last year, she made television history as the first Black woman of any nationality to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. How to Get Away with Murder – the ABC show for which she won the award – is one of the most successful shows on television these days, and with Shonda Rhimes serving as an executive producer, it’s one of the leading efforts in promoting diversity in Hollywood, along with shows like Blackish and Scandal. Also a Tony Award-winning stage actress, the Oscar-nominated Davis is a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, and her nearly 25-year-career has helped make her one of the most visible Black women in American film and television. So who better to discuss the ongoing controversy surrounding Sunday night’s Oscars?
The controversy of this year’s Academy Awards was born out of an issue that has existed since the earliest days of the entertainment industry, and that is the lack of diversity in Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera. Social media campaigns and a ton of publicity in the news have made this year’s ceremony a flashpoint because of the fact that – for the second year in a row – the nominees for the evening’s most important categories are all White (excluding Best Director, as Alejandro González Iñárritu is Mexican). Only one year after her history-making win, Davis is in many ways the perfect expert on the topic of Hollywood whitewashing, and Sway Calloway took full advantage of her expertise on a recent episode of Sway in the Morning. Around the 5:30 mark, Sway mentions the contributions that Davis and Kerry Washington are bringing to primetime television as African American women and immense talents, but he expands the discussion to include the ABC network itself, which also recently made history when it announced Channing Dungey would become the first African American president of the network. After calling her an “awesome, awesome woman,” Davis shared her feelings about working alongside her “She is absolutely capable of stepping into this job. I’m very much looking forward to the changes that are going to be made,” she says. Part of her excitement seems to be surrounding the notion that Dungey’s appointment will only contribute more to the visibility of Black women on network television. “At the end of the day, you gotta teach people how to see you…I mean, we know, as women of color, that we come in all shapes and sizes. We do all kinds of things with our hair. And we’re vast. We’re complicated. And sometimes I don’t see even a minuscule part of who we are on screen.”
Towards the 9:55 mark, Sway asks Davis to expound upon what urged her to make the statements that she did when accepting her Emmy. In her acceptance speech, she boldly remarked on the lack of opportunities for actors of color. “What is your stance on the upcoming Oscars? Are you going to be a part of the boycott?,” he asks. “Listen, at the end of the day, it’s not the Oscars. It’s the Hollywood movie-making system. You can have 3,000 Academy members who are Black, but if you only have two films out that have people of color, what good is it?” She then details her suggestions for rectifying the flawed system, saying “you need people in positions of power to greenlight movies that have us in them, to rethink what they have out there in terms of the roles, or to greenlight more projects that are spearheaded by African Americans. That’s the only way things are going to change.” However, she says the duty to revolutionize the system is not solely the responsibility of those in power. “We have to step up to the plate, too. We have to see movies like Selma. We have to see movies like Dope. We have to see movies like Beasts of No Nation. And we have a tendency to see just very specific movies, and we do the same thing in T.V.; we only watch very specific shows that we feel, you know, really show us as Black people. No, we’re really expansive. You gotta support those different voices out there. She completes her thought with a general statement about the industry, saying “Hollywood at the end of the day looks at the box office. And you know we’re consumers,” rightly suggesting that African American movie goers have the power to change the face of the entertainment industry by spending their money on movies which represent their race fully and diversely.
The nearly 20-minute conversation weaves in and out of the micro and macro, focusing on anecdotes of Davis’ career, broader dialogue about Black culture at large, the truth about acting and statistics behind the profession, and more. As the Academy Awards inch closer, its handling of the no longer ignorable diversity failings will no doubt pique the curiosities of millions, particularly with Chris Rock serving as the host. However, Davis’ words remind us that a change is not only attainable, but inevitable. As she says, the first step is to “step into your power.” So step on.