'The hardest challenge I had to face in my life was against myself: I felt I was worthless. It took a long time to gain self-esteem,' confesses the actress, now on the screens as a skilled and fierce warrior in 'The Woman King'. Here she tells how a little girl who lived in a rat-infested house and felt 'unworthy' went on to win an Oscar. Thanks (also) to a Buddhist mantra.
She has the conviction and magnetism of a preacher. His strong voice becomes stentorian at times, and the repetitive, chanting phrasing suddenly takes you back to the prayers of evangelical churches, gospels and choirs. But we are not in a Baptist church, Viola Davis is speaking to me from Toronto, where she presented her latest film, of which she is star and producer, to the audience at the Canadian festival.
Viola Davis is The Woman King
Described as a mix between Black Panther (the superhero film-phenomenon that grossed $1.344 billion in 2018) and a female-black version of Braveheart, The Woman King is an epic story about the warriors of the kingdom of Dahomey, fighting in the 19th century against the West African colonialists: at the US box office, it topped $19 million in its first weekend. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it opens the door to new African stories and will soon be followed by the highly anticipated Wakanda Forever, the sequel to Black Panther.
When I return to talk to Viola Davis two weeks later, she is in Brazil, in Rio, promoting The Woman King with the cast. It is a mission, hers: she wants to proclaim to the world that black cinema exists, that it is a meaningful and rigorous reality, and as such, homage must be paid to it. Hers is an act of love and also a political warning for the cinema she calls 'black', for its stories that have always been ignored, and for the countless performers who have only sporadically had the opportunity to assert their talent.
If you change the subject, and move on to talk about the role of actresses in cinema today, you return to the subject with a combative spirit, immediately emphasising the difference between white and black actresses. Precisely for the latter,' she repeats, 'she set up her production company JuVee with her husband, actor Julius Tennon. And also for them, she published her autobiography, Finding Me, in which she tells her story of a dark-skinned, violated and poor child who from the miserable, rat-infested flat in Rhode Island lands on the prestigious stages of New York, and then becomes one of America's most acclaimed actresses.
Viola Davis, an Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress
Davis to date is the only African-American star in entertainment history to have won Oscars, Emmys and Tony Awards. The Woman King is a project unlike any other for the performer of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: its making – she confirms – coincided with a phase of personal rethinking and reinvention. In this film, for the first time, the interpreter of Barriere – Fences and The Rules of the Perfect Murder (the popular TV series that catapulted her onto the international scene in 2014) is transformed into a mythical heroine, with pecs and musculature of steel: Nanisca is a generaless determined to do anything to defend the ideals and independence of her people. A rather eloquent metaphor.
'General' Nanisca fights against the hardships and injustices of an enemy world. And Viola Davis?
I am Nanisca every day, as soon as I get up I have to fight against the world and, in addition, I have to fight against myself, to find the strength and courage to believe and sustain my struggle. The real challenge I face, however, is not the threatening dragons: it is a conflict that thunders within me. I have finally reached a point in life where I feel I am worth something. I am not saying – nor do I care if I am a better person… I now finally know that I have value.
Personal struggles and professional battles. The Woman King tells an unknown episode in African history, has a predominantly black cast and a budget of $50 million. It couldn't have been easy to bring it to fruition
It was very m-o-l-t-o difficult (he punctuates slowly). There are no adequate expressions in the English language to reflect the long struggle that takes place between the creation of a film and the moment you see it on the screen. She, Alessandra, often uses the term 'choice' and that term to us black actors – and us dark-skinned African-American actresses – does not fit at all. Because it assumes that there is a mountain of scripts developed by the studios and it implies that they are constantly asking us: 'And what do you want to do after this project, an action film or a comedy? And who do you want to work with? With Alejandro Iñárritu, with Darren Aronofsky?"
No, we black actresses don't have those choices, we consider ourselves privileged, lucky, to get what comes our way; when it's a good project, we've won the lottery!
Viola Davis: 'I am dwarfed every day'
She convinced everyone to make her film. But it was a never-ending battle. You have to fight to convince them that you can 'export' the film globally and that it can make money; that studios and financiers can invest in that project; that our stories are interesting enough to convince white people (and white women), Hispanics, a worldwide audience to pay for a ticket. You have to work hard to cast actresses like Thuso (Thuso Mbedu seen in The Underground Railroad and Scandal, ed.), Lashana (Lashana Lynch, formerly in No Time to Die, Captain Marvel, ed.), Sheila (the Sheila Atim from Bruised – Fight to Live, Pinocchio, ed.), because their resumes are not those of white actresses. You have to kill yourself to convince the world that you can do it and you are worth it. You know, when I hear the phrase 'Such and such always make interesting choices' about a white actress, I would like to rephrase it: that actress has the possibility of great choices, we never do.
In the 291 pages of Finding Me she often returns to the importance of self-love, of self-love. She recalls that even as a child she was desperate for validation, feeling not worthy, 'not worthy', even when she was accepted to the prestigious New York acting school Juilliard and began to succeed in the theatre.
I don't think we talk about self-love enough. We talk about romantic love, the love of children, but self-love is the basis of everything. From the Buddhist mantra 'you more than anyone else deserve love and devotion' there is no escaping it. That is why The Woman King was so important to me: we black women are denied self-esteem. It is a social and cultural reality, we are constantly told what we are not, how much we cannot do, that we are not beautiful enough, that our nose is too wide, our lips too big. When I was a child, the only image of a black woman I knew was that of Cicely Tyson (American actress who died in 2021, ed), then Melba Moore (actress and singer, ed), but I don't remember anyone else with dark skin like mine who made me feel like a being with value. I wanted to show these women because we see them so rarely on screen: that is the message of the film, and of my memoirs.
Even for non-black women it is possible to identify with certain descriptions and moments.
Of course, and it doesn't surprise me at all because, strange as it may seem, there is nothing in my life that is not universal, common. I have always felt part of the immense human family, the problem is that it has not reciprocated: 'It's not my problem, it's only yours' seemed to be the reaction of many. I know that we African Americans are beautiful, others are not. I also know that those who leave the cinema after seeing our film feel deep emotions.
In the memoir, you quote authors such as Joseph Campbell, Anton Chekhov, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Merton and always refer to spiritual texts. Do you consider yourself religious?
I consider myself deeply spiritual. When you want to tell your story you have to look deep inside yourself. We have to live and act from the heart, not the brain, and Merton, the Bible and even Nietzsche speak from the depths of the heart. When I offer you my gift as an artist and you receive it, the gift starts from my heart, and it can change you. If it only stimulates your brain, you think about it for a while, then you go out to dinner, have a glass of wine, and forget about it. But if it goes straight to your heart, you will never forget it, and you will never be the same person again.