Why Viola Davis Won’t Stop Talking About Racism In The Entertainment Industry

Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, and Ellen Pompeo. CREDIT: DAN STEINBERG/INVISION/AP
Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, and Ellen Pompeo. CREDIT: DAN STEINBERG/INVISION/AP

Shonda Rhimes’ empire is on several covers of this month’s Entertainment Weekly. It’s proof of her total television dominance that she has the power to produce so many tweet-worthy cover spreads. There’s one for Grey’s Anatomy, one for Scandal, one for How to Get Away with Murder, and one with Rhimes flanked by the stars of all three: Ellen Pompeo, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis.

During a roundtable discussion for EW, these four women discussed the infamous Alessandra Stanley New York Times piece “How to Get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman.” (Between that story and Deadline’s “actually, there’s too much diversity on TV” entry into the Everybody Needs An Editor canon, it’s been an, ah, interesting year for misguided journalism about race in entertainment.) Rhimes felt that the backlash to the story was, at the very least, proof that Stanley’s was the opinion with which the majority of people disagree.

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But after Pompeo said that “If any good comes out of ignorance, then I’ll take the ignorance,” Davis said, “I’ve been on the other side of ignorance” and dug deeper into the way racism has affected her professional life. The “mindset,” she said, trails behind the obliteration of Jim Crow laws, and “as an actress, I have been a great victim of that.” She went on:

There were lot of things that people did not allow me to be until I got [the role of] Annalise Keating. I was not able to be sexualized. Ever. In my entire career. And here’s the thing that’s even more potent: I’ve never seen anyone who even looks like me be sexualized on television or in film. Ever. When people say they’re tired of hearing that, I always say, ‘Okay, well, you give me an example and then I’ll stop talking about it. But I’m gonna talk about it until you hear it.’

Davis’ comments come at a time when actresses of color are more outspoken than ever about racism within the entertainment industry. Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez recently made headlines talking about intra-Latino racism — she was criticized for her imperfect Spanish in a People Espanol interview — and regularly raises issues of Latino representation and coopration while doing press for her show. Tracie Ellis Ross, star of Black-ish, is frank about how standards of beauty affect black women and her choice to wear her hair naturally affects the way her shooting schedule is structured. Rising force-to-be-reckoned-with Amandla Stenberg, who is arguably more famous for her insightful social media posts on race and intersectionality as she is for her breakout role as Rue in the first Hunger Games, is on the cover of Dazed talking about how Tumblr is “such a cool platform for learning about black and trans rights.”

Davis also described pushing for Annalise to challenge audiences’ preconceived notions about what this character would say or do: “What values can we add that can therefore be revolutionary? I don’t want anyone putting any limits on me. I am tired of it.”