When that New York Times article about Shonda Rhimes, “How to Get Away with Murder,” and Viola Davis’ beauty came out, people were rightfully outraged. The article was full of backhanded compliments with a touch of unknowing (?) racism. Talk show hosts have spoken about it. Think pieces have been written, slamming the Times for their negligence, and a hashtag was created challenging that problematic phrase “less classically beautiful.”
But what did Viola Davis have to say about all of this? We know she quoted Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise ” in a tweet. But last week, before the premiere of her new show, she spoke with Rosie Perez and Whoopi Goldberg on “The View” extensively about the show and her reaction to the piece. Here’s what she had to say.
How Shonda got her to take on this television role
It was easy to get me to do this tv show. All the roles I’ve ever gotten, you’ve seen the roles I’ve gotten. They’ve been wonderful but so many of them have been downtrodden. They’ve been women who are pretty much asexual, they haven’t been realized, they have careers but no names. And all of a sudden I was given this opportunity to play someone sexy, mysterious, someone complicated. And it was a chance to use my craft. It was a chance to transform. It was a chance to surprise myself and the public. And I took it.
I know so many actors in their careers, their seventies, eighties, fantastic actresses of color who have never been given this opportunity. I’m so thankful that it came to me at this point in my life.
Rosie Perez commends her for her performance of this character saying that in it, Davis is intelligent, fierce and sexy.
I see myself as those things in my life but I very rarely have seen people who are a physical manifestation of me on the screen. When I was younger, it was people like Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll and Madge Sinclair who made me believe I could do it. And then somewhere along the line, they disappeared.
Once again, I’m glad that Shonda Rhimes saw me. That she saw me and she took me in.
When I did an interview with Oprah, I said ‘No one’s ever going to cast me in a sexy role’ and Shonda looked at that interview and said ‘Why not?’ And I’m glad she said why not. I think that’s what makes her a visionary. That’s what makes her special, that’s what makes her iconic.
Whoopi says Shonda casts herself and that’s why she was able to see Viola. But other people don’t get it.
I think that beauty is subjective. I’ve heard that statement my entire life being a dark skinned Black woman. Points to Whoopi You know what I mean. You hear it from the time you come out of the womb. And classically not beautiful is a fancy term of saying ugly and denouncing you, erasing you. It worked when I was younger, it no longer works for me now. It’s like Ruby Dee said, that she wanted that beauty, that hard to get beauty that comes from within, strength, courage and dignity. And what you’re seeing now are so many Black women came out after that article and they used the hashtag “not classically beautiful” or whatever and they’re showing their face and they’re stepping into who they are because they’re teaching a culture how to treat them and how to see them. Because really, at the end of day, you define you. You define you.
My love for Viola is on swole after seeing this interview. It’s one thing to be talented but it’s even more impressive when that talent comes with substance, an authenticity and a willingness to inspire others. She really is a gem, as beautiful inside as she is outwardly.
You can watch her full segment on “The View” in the video below.