Viola Davis lives every day like it’s a protest.

The Oscar-winning actress is on the cover of the new Vanity Fair, and in the issue she opens up about activism, representation for Black women on-screen and looking back at “The Help”.

“I feel like my entire life has been a protest,” Davis says. “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.’”

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Talking about the support she received as a Black woman from her mother and sisters, Davis recalls, “When I was younger, I did not exert my voice because I did not feel worthy of having a voice.

“[They] looked at me and said I was pretty,” she says. “Who’s telling a dark-skinned girl that she’s pretty? 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 pauses. “I did not find my worth on my own.”

Davis also highlights the lack of opportunities for young Black women in Hollywood.

“There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known. To pop her!” she says, naming actresses like Emma Stone, Reese Witherspoon, Kristen Stewart, who she says are all “fabulous white actresses,” who’ve had “a wonderful role for each stage of their lives, that brought them to the stage they are now. We can’t say that for many actors of colour.”

Viola Davis. Photo: Dario Calmese for Vanity Fair
Viola Davis. Photo: Dario Calmese for Vanity Fair

Black women, Davis says, also have to deal with more fraught issues when it comes to harassment and pay.

“We know as women, when you speak up, you’re labelled a bitch—immediately. Unruly—immediately. Just as a woman. As a woman of colour, there is very, very, very little you have to do. All you have to do is maybe roll your eyes, and that’s it,” she explains.

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Reflecting on her Oscar-winning role as Aibileen in “The Help”, Davis admits, “I was that journeyman actor, trying to get in.”

Now, in 2020, Davis looks back at the film critically.

“Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity,” she says. “They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but…it’s catering to the white audience. The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. Then they leave the movie theatre and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were.

“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],” explaining that the film, like many others in Hollywood, was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”