For the first time in the history of Vanity Fair, a Black photographer was behind the lens for the cover story and their subject was none other than Viola Davis.
It’s odd to still have these kinds of “firsts” in 2020, but 2020 has also taught us times haven’t changed as much as we thought. Viola’s interview begins with her expressing how desperately she wanted to attend protests for George Floyd, but was sidelined out of fear of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Both of us cried,” said friend Octavia Spencer who was tapped for a quote for Davis’ interview. “This WAS our civil rights movement, and we were sidelined because of health issues. We felt isolated from the movement.”
But they wouldn’t be defeated. They joined a few others in their neighborhood and held a demonstration with a few health conscious folk. The Academy award nominated actress held up a sign that read “AHMAUD ARBERY.”
Davis’ whole life has been a protest. At least that’s how the masterful actress describes it.
“I feel like my entire life has been a protest. My production company is my protest. Me not wearing a wig at the Oscars in 2012 was my protest. It is a part of my voice, just like introducing myself to you and saying, ‘Hello, my name is Viola Davis.’” she said.
Davis is a first of many. And today, with the release of the July/August issue she is the first cover star to be shot by a Black photographer, Dario Calmese. The images are stunning.
Vanity Fair’s historic issue comes on the heels of Vogue facing backlash over their Simone Biles issue. Shot by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, Biles appeared poorly lit and in unflattering photos. Davis shines with a full afro in the Calmese images that beam like her smile.
Davis said Calmese described the shoot as “a re-creation of the Louis Agassiz slave portraits taken in the 1800s — the back, the welts. This image reclaims that narrative, transmuting the white gaze on Black suffering into the Black gaze of grace, elegance, and beauty.”
Going into depth about her childhood, Davis revealed she struggled to find her voice and beauty in her dark skin.
“Who’s telling a dark-skinned girl that she’s pretty? Nobody says it. I’m telling you, Sonia, nobody says it. The dark-skinned Black woman’s voice is so steeped in slavery and our history. If we did speak up, it would cost us our lives. Somewhere in my cellular memory was still that feeling—that I do not have the right to speak up about how I’m being treated, that somehow I deserve it.” She paused. “I did not find my worth on my own.”
Davis continues to use her platform to be that voice for other young women who may be struggling to find their own beauty.
Davis continued to talk about her Hollywood journey and how she regrets doing The Help.
“There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help. But there’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth],” Davis says. The Help, like so many other movies, was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”
Despite being nominated for an Oscar for the role, Davis says the gigs weren’t exactly rolling in.
“I always ask them, What movies? What were those movies?” she says with an incredulous shake of her head. “Listen, I got Widows”—the 2018 action thriller about a team of women who plan a heist—“but if I just relied on the Hollywood pipeline…. No, there are not those roles.”
Davis is set to portray Michelle Obama in the Showtime series First Ladies, which is being described as a White House drama.
Read the full interview, here.
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