Viola Davis has a new project she’s a part of that’s very near and dear to her heart. It’s not a big budget Hollywood film or a Broadway performance in the works. Instead, the Oscar-winning actress is narrating a documentary called a Touch of Sugar produced by Merck, which brings attention to the Type 2 diabetes epidemic in America. This film is important to her because her sisters are currently battling with the disease, and despite the star’s best efforts, she was diagnosed as being prediabetic a few years ago. It’s something that has impacted her family for some time.
“This was the one project that spoke to me because of my sisters, whom I love more than anything who are struggling with diabetes. And the African-American community and Hispanic community are absolutely struggling with it more than anyone,” she said over the phone. “When I grew up, all anyone talked about was ‘the sugar.’ There was no other information, it was just ‘the sugar.’ No one said it was diabetes. No one had a name for it. It was always associated with the biggest members of your family in terms of weight. That was it.”
She, herself, was very surprised to find out how close she was to having full blown diabetes despite her efforts to have an active lifestyle and eat clean.
“I remember being shocked, and by shocked I mean frozen. I was frozen because I felt that I took every single step to be healthy,” she said. “My glucose levels were always fine. Every year I went for my physical. I exercised and ate right. As much as I knew about food, or I thought I knew, I still felt like I had no information.”
Davis would go on to change her diet, one she thought was already pretty good, to be more cognizant of other things that could impact her health, from her fat to her water intake.
“I woke up to the fact that I was still making choices that were not good. Some choices even that were healthy, they weren’t good with a prediabetes diagnosis,” she said. “For instance, my number one mistake was I wasn’t drinking enough water. That was a huge thing. I keep a 64-ounce container next to me. I just guzzle it all day and try to drink two in a day.”
“In terms of my fat intake, because I thought fat is okay as long as it’s low-carb, I had to be careful with that,” she added. “Also, I wasn’t eating throughout the day. Certain things I just began to really wake up to.”
Now that more than 30 million Americans have diabetes, with about 90 to 95 percent of them having Type 2, the actress says there’s no time like the present for people to educate themselves.
“The thought process with diabetes is, you’re causing it,” she said. “You’re causing it by overreating, by being obese, and then the solutions become overly simplified: ‘Just stop eating sugar. You know what you need.’ People don’t understand, it’s support you need. It’s management. It’s a disease like any disease that needs management.”
“I’m proud to be part of the documentary, I really am,” she added. “It’s very informative, very moving and all the cases they profile, I guarantee you, you will gain a lot of knowledge and insight.”
It’s not the only big project she has right now, though. The star is filming her last season of the hit ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder, rapping up after six seasons. While playing Annalise Keating has been exceptionally rewarding for Davis, she can’t say whether or not she would do TV again.
“I had nine failed television pilots before How to Get Away With Murder,” she said, noting she was on the cast of a few other shows, including The Traveler, Century City, and City of Angels in the past. “After each of those experiences I said, ‘I will never do TV again because I’m too exhausted.’ I’m 54 years old now and I’m a proud 54. Of course, I say I don’t know if I could do TV again, it’s such an exhausting schedule, but How to Get Away With Murder changed my life. It really did. I know I did The Help, I did Fences, I’ve certainly done films that people say ‘I loved you in that,’ but it was How to Get Away With Murder that literally introduced me to a global audience.”
“In terms of my work and my art, it was one of those roles that I didn’t necessarily see myself in. But once I decided to allow Annalise to come into me as a woman of color, as a 54-year-old dark-skinned woman with a wide nose, and not a size 2, what it did was it made me redefine how I looked at myself and it made me redefine even in my playing of Annalise how Black women are seen in the media and seen in life,” she added. “It became a higher cause and that doesn’t always happen with your work. Sometimes you just do it. It’s a job. But yes, I say it because of the schedule and it’s brutal. I’m so sleepy sometimes, but on the other hand, never say never.”
Davis says that the exhaustion has been worth it though to play such an important TV character for Black women of all ages.
“She’s sexual. She’s smart. She’s complicated. She’s vulnerable. She’s strong. She’s flawed. She’s an anti-hero, and I think often times when people look at women of color, especially dark-skinned women, then you’re strong, you lack any sexuality whatsoever, and you’re in the background. You’re definitely not in the forefront,” she said. “She was humanized. She is also a woman without boundaries. She is a wild woman that can not be tamed. She is not a metaphor and I wanted that for her because that’s what I want for myself. Even in terms of her sexuality, Annalise is pansexual. Annalise is absolutely open to anything. She’s open for love. And I think the most revolutionary thing that we can do is to show that people of color are in fact, human. That’s what needs to be shown. We’re human! We’re messy, we’re beautiful in our mess and it certainly is great to play as an actor. That’s why she was important. Hopefully it will continue to be important because now, I would love to see more women of color in lead roles on TV and film.”
With that in mind, I wrapped up my conversation with Davis by asking her about the fact that the role of Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’s new film, Harriet, was initially one that a studio exec in the 90s said would be perfect for Julia Roberts. Davis has been attached to an HBO biopic on Tubman and even quotes her in speeches. With that in mind, the fact that a lead role of playing such an iconic Black woman would go to anyone other than a Black woman was both laughable and a sign of a much bigger issue when it comes to Hollywood and diversity for the star. Unfortunately, she said it’s a common occurrence that roles that should so obviously go to Black women in the industry can be passed along to whomever studio execs think may be a better fit financially.
“It happens all of the time,” she said of the controversial story. “Here’s the thing, simply put: Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman is ridiculous. That barely warrants a response. That’s ridiculous. I understand that that the film industry very much is about commerce and money, I get it. But that’s ridiculous,” she added. “But here’s the thing, and this is a four, five-hour conversation, and this is certainly even why I decided to be a part of this documentary, is that I’m always a little concerned that the people who are questioned about race and diversity and inclusion, are the people in need and not the people in power.”
“You don’t question the people who have not been invited to the party, you question the people who are throwing the party. And the people who are out there who are living in any way, even within this industry, who have the green light vote, who have the power to finance films, who are making those choices to want to cast a Julia Roberts as a Harriet Tubman, this is a better question for them,” she added. “Why is it that you are not armed with enough information and why you don’t see it as important to cast a Black woman as Harriet Tubman? Why is it that you would want to make this decision? I think that you would get some real concrete answers. Because, listen, I wouldn’t do it because Harriet Tubman was indeed a Black woman [laughs]. You can go through the history books and see that Harriet Tubman was a Black woman. Julia Roberts in a head rag running through the woods is just not going to work! It’s just not going to work. It’s ridiculous. But I think you have to question the person who actually wanted to make that decision, and then I think you would get a real response.”
You can check out the documentary A Touch of Sugar by going to www.ATouchOfSugarFilm.com. In addition, it’s also airing on local ABC stations in select markets in November and December, so check your local listings for air times.