Viola Davis is the first Black actress to have won the big three–an Oscar (for films), Emmy (for television) and Tony (for theatre) awards—in an atmosphere rife with racism, sexism and ageism, that is a great achievement by any yardstick.
What is even more remarkable is her journey from extreme poverty to Hollywood royalty, which she has written about candidly in her bestselling memoir, Finding Me.
Davis had all the odds stacked in her way– belonging to a family that could be called “po” which, she explains, is a level lower than poor. One of six children of an abusive, alcoholic father and a battered but brave mother, who stayed on in the marriage for nearly half a century, probably because she had no option.
The Davis family lived in a condemned tenement in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where most days they went without water, electricity or heat. They were constantly hungry and cold, rats ran all over the apartment, terrifying the children. In freezing winters, the Davis sisters were unable to wash their clothes for days, they had no soap, towels or shampoo, and often went to school reeking of urine, because they wet their beds. Yet, the sense of shame was so ingrained in them, that when they were pulled up by teachers for their lack of hygiene, they could not admit to their desperate poverty. Looking back, she wonders why nobody asked about their home environment, or if something was wrong. “There was a lack of intentional investment in little Black girls,” she writes.
At the beginning of the book, Davis narrates how, when she was in the third grade, every day, after school, a group of boys, led, ironically by a Black Portuguese boy, chased her like predators after helpless prey. They shouted racial abuse, and threw stones, bricks, tree branches, or whatever projectile they could lay their hands on. She used to sit nearest the entrance in class, and run as soon as the end-of-class bell rang. “For the gang of boys, it was sadistic fun,” she writes, “ Every day it was the same madness. The same trauma.”
After the torment got too much, she was reluctant to go to school, and eventually told her mother, Mae Alice, what she has been going through. Her mother, the woman who was constantly being viciously beaten by her husband, told Viola not to run from them any more. “Soon as that bell rings, you WALK home! They mess with you, you jug ‘em,” she said. Jug meant stab, and Mae Alice gave her daughter a crochet needle for that purpose, which Viola kept in her pocket. “Don’t come back here crying ‘bout those boys or I’ll wop yo’ ass.”
That lesson in self-defence and dignity stayed with Viola, and it worked against the bullies. When one of them grabbed her arm, she said, “If you don’t get your hands off me, I’ll jug you.” The boys backed off and stopped chasing her.
Years later, when co-actor, Will Smith, asked her what was the moment that defined her, she remembered the hate of those boys, because “I was not pretty. Because I was Black.” She writes that even after all her professional success and fame, “I was still that little, terrified girl… I had never stopped running. My feet just stopped moving.”
With searing honesty, she writes that there was no protection at home either. There was violence and sexual abuse by men around, and her own brother. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, when the book came out recently, they talked about how girls were molested and there wasn’t even a term for it. Davis writes. “The abusers were called ‘dirty old men’ and the abused were called ‘fast’ or ‘heifers’. It was shrouded in silence and invisible trauma and shame. It is hard to process how pervasive it was. What made us sitting ducks was our lack of supervision and lack of knowledge. It was a different time.”
When a man in a store groped her sister, Danielle, the shopkeeper actually defended him saying, “He does that to all the little girls. It’s not a big deal.” Mae Alice chose to report the incident to the police and press charges; the molester was let off with a small fine.
It took a fierce determination to overcome such adversity, get out of that environment, dream of being an actress, and believing that only achievement could “detox” the terrible past. It was coming across a Cicely Tyson film on television, that showed Viola Davis the way. Tyson was one of the few Black actresses of the time, and a beacon of hope for a poor girl with a seemingly impossible goal.
Despite the crushing disadvantages of their race and poverty, the Davis girls did well at school. There were teachers and mentors who encouraged Viola Davis and led her to the ladder of fame, but she had to make the difficult climb herself. It meant living in difficult circumstances, doing multiple low-end jobs, sharing dingy apartments, making long, tiring bus-train-walk commutes, and still excelling. When she got into the prestigious Juilliard College in New York, she was one of only 30 Black students, out of 856 in all.
“It was arduous listening and watching white guest actors perform, white playwrights coming in to speak, white projects, white characters, a European approach to the work, speech, voice, movement,” Davis remembers. “Everyone was geared toward molding and shaping you into a perfect white actor.”
There were a few good roles for Black actresses in the theatre back then, but not much in better paying fields of film and television. They were playing mainly poor, drug-addicted mothers, or sassy, loudmouth friends to the graceful white heroines. She had the problem of either being too Black, as compared to light-skinned African-Americans, or not being Black enough for inconsequential roles. There was the unspoken idea that Black women were not desirable, even by Black men. She does not mention any sexual exploitation at work, but maybe she found a way to deal with it. And, of course, she had to find ways of fulfilling the financial demands of her ever-expanding family.
Even after her Oscar nominations for Doubt and The Help (she later won for Fences), she wasn’t offered lead parts worthy of her great talent, till Shonda Rhimes cast her in the Emmy-winning lead role in the show, How To Get Away With Murder. The role of Annalise Keating, whom Davis describes “as a sexual, smart, vulnerable, possibly sociopathic, highly astute, criminal defense attorney” made Viola Davis finally get her due, and perhaps, push open some more doors for actresses of colour.
The book also has pages of joy—her mind-altering trip to Africa, her romance and marriage to fellow actor Julius Tennon, her adoption of a little girl they named Genesis. Actors in the Indian film industry, who talk of struggle, have little idea what it really entails—when was the last time a woman from the slums became a bona fide star?
After years of therapy, self-healing and forgiveness, Davis sums up her life so far, “My journey was like a war movie, where at the end, the hero has been bruised and bloodied, traumatized from witnessing untold amounts of death and destruction, and so damaged that she cannot go back to being the same woman who went to war.” A lot of women would understand that.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Pree Journal dated May 20, 2022)