When she won an Emmy for best actress in a drama series, Viola Davis made history as the first Black woman to do so in the awards’ history. Her acceptance speech deserved its own award when she used a Harriet Tubman quote to talk about the disparity between white women and Black women in Hollywood. "In my dreams and visions, I seemed to see a line, and on the other side of that line were green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies, who stretched out their arms to me over the line, but I couldn’t reach them no-how," Davis said with passion. And she left the room with something to think about when she said, “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Since then, she has become both a figurehead and advocate for women of colour’s seat at the Hollywood table. And it’s becoming even more clear how her own experiences compelled her to wear that hat.
According to People, things got real when Davis spoke at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston on Thursday night. She was a speaker alongside other giants like Meryl Streep and Diane von Furstenberg, and she recalled some pretty traumatic memories from her childhood. Davis grew up poor in South Carolina and Rhode Island. Her father was an alcoholic who made domestic violence a regular occurrence in her household. Things were so tense at home, Davis said, that she wet the bed until she was 14 years old.
School did not offer any reprieve. “The strongest memories I have of school up until 4th grade is constantly being called ‘n****r.’ ‘Black n****r,’” she recounted. “Third grade was just overwhelming. As soon as the bell would ring, I’d stay in the front of the line so I could start running, because when I looked back I would see eight to nine boys who would pick up anything on the side of the road and yell, ‘you ugly black n***r.'”
And even though Davis is living a life that is very far removed from that life of racism and volatility, she knows that other Black women are still living on the margins. “When I look at the world, I see that a lot of black women are out there suffering from domestic violence and AIDS.” Yet and still, the way Black women — especially dark-skinned Black women — are represented in film tell a different story. “I no longer wanted to see myself onscreen as someone’s chatty best friend,” she said. As talented as Davis is, she deserves better than second-tier roles, and she hasn’t had to accept them since her big win.
From Hidden Figures to Fences, Davis now gets to portray different versions of Black womanhood. And while she has spoken before about how poverty motivated her, Davis is in the perfect position to now motivate others. It is her status not as a famous actor, but as someone who has experienced the sting of institutionalised racism as well.