Viola Davis is widely considered one of the greatest actors in Hollywood, and stellar performances in titles like Doubt, The Help (despite its problematic script), Fences, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom solidified her greatness in the industry. However, the project that the actress is best known for is the Shondaland crime-thriller How to Get Away with Murder, in which she played the chaotic anti-heroine Annalise Keating. Davis’ performance in the ABC fan-favorite series is stuck in our minds on a permanent loop — I’ll never forget her iconic deadpan delivery of “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” — but if colourism and anti-Blackness had their way, the role might not have happened.
In its six-season run on ABC, How to Get Away with Murder quickly became one of superproducer Shonda Rhimes’ most popular shows because of the constant twists and turns of its plot, which centered on the drama that followed main character Annalise Keating. We knew that murder and intrigue would be a key part of this story (the title pretty much gives it away), but no one expected just how tumultuous the show would get as Annalise and her beloved Keating 5 finessed their way out of sketchy situation after sketchy situation. Even when the storyline became, as many Shondaland shows tend to, somewhat convoluted, we couldn’t take our eyes away from How to Get Away with Murder. Davis was just too good for us to change the channel. She was born to be Annalise Keating.
But not everyone felt that way. In a recently published New York Times profile, the Oscar-winner revealed that there was initially some skepticism about her ability to take on the role of the powerful and sexually-charged professor/high powered attorney-turned criminal. The doubts weren’t based on her acting ability (she’s Viola Davis) or on the plot of the show itself (people love a murder mystery). Disappointingly, the concerns stemmed from a belief that Davis wasn’t “pretty enough” to star as a sensual lead character on primetime television. Even worse, the takes reportedly came from fellow Black actors in Hollywood. And Twitter is rightfully furious about it.
As much as she’s been celebrated for her undeniable acting ability since How to Get Away with Murder’s premiere, Davis has also been subjected to a number of disgusting comments about her looks; in 2014, a critic notoriously registered genuine surprise that the Davis could ever channel her sexy side and even referred to the actress as “less classically beautiful” than fellow ShondaLand star Kerry Washington and Halle Berry. The nasty statement sparked outrage from the Black community because it wasn’t just unnecessary, but it was also simply not true. (Have you seen Viola Davis??) The only explanation for it? Colourism.
We’ve come to expect mainstream Hollywood, a space that is well-known for general anti-Blackness, to other darker-skinned Black women this way — either hypersexualising them or stripping them of all sexuality whatsoever — but the degradation always hurts more when it’s coming from inside the house and from our own. And unfortunately, there's a tendency among many Black people to deny the pervasiveness of colourism at almost every turn of our culture.
“When I did Queen & Slim and tried to talk about colorism, people told me to sit the f*ck down and that I didn't know what I was talking about and that I was lying,” said Jodie Turner-Smith in a recent interview with Unbothered. “When I said, ‘This is how I've been perceived in life as a dark-skinned Black woman,’ people literally told me that I was lying…When do we get to have a conversation about it without people telling us to sit down and shut up?”
Colorism has always existed within the Black diaspora; from the paper bag tests of the early 1900s, to the continued tradition of skin bleaching, to the clear scarcity of roles for dark-skinned Black actresses in the TV/film industry, the unfortunate phenomenon of preferring and privileging lighter skin can’t be denied as part of Black history and culture. The stigma that comes with being a darker-skinned Black person (often compounded by the intersections of other markers like gender, weight, and hair texture) can have serious mental, emotional, and even physical repercussions. As a child growing up in Rhode Island, Davis recalled in the NYT profile, she was violently bullied by her Black male classmates, and the trauma of being singled out because of the color of her skin followed her well into her adult years. Despite having a critically acclaimed filmography and being more than qualified, Davis said that she was initially “terrified” to accept the role of Annalise Keating; if her industry peers thought she was too old and too dark, what would the rest of the world say?
Davis didn’t name any of the men and women who cast doubts on her worthiness in the profile — although I would personally like to know who had the audacity — but honestly, it doesn’t even matter. The real point is that colourism affects darker-skinned Black women of almost every walk and station of life. Even a critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning actress isn’t immune to its discrimination. But as more Black women like Davis and Turner-Smith candidly discuss the prejudices that they’ve faced due to the colour of their skin (even as people within and outside of our community play mental gymnastics in order to downplay the issue), they’re able to shine a light on just how deeply embedded colourism is in our society and, hopefully, allow us to unlearn it individually and as a collective. Understanding that it’s not about “preference” but rather an internalisation and execution of white supremacist standards is the first step in healing and securing a better future for all of us, but especially for dark-skinned Black girls and women everywhere.
Colourism almost deprived us of one of the most iconic television performances of the last decade. We can’t afford to let it cost us anything else.