Viola Davis and Family Star in “Black Americana” a Photo Essay Directed by Regina King
March 29, 2021
Article taken from W Magazine.
Anywhere, U.S.A. That’s where this family of three finds itself, in the backyard of a modest American home. It could be Los Angeles, Detroit, or New York. You can almost hear the sounds of DeBarge or Maze featuring Frankie Beverly—the quintessential track list for any Black family’s reunion, cookout, or lazy weekend afternoon. The fact that the star of these photos is the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe–winning actress Viola Davis almost doesn’t register. Instead, we see a classical portrait of Black American life.
That was director Regina King’s intention when she orchestrated, with the photographer Andre D. Wagner, the images you see here. King began crafting the story months ago by watching old interviews of her friend Davis, in which she could hear “the pain as well as the beauty in the bruises” in her delivery. With her timeless appeal, Davis embodies King’s idea of what she terms Black Americana. “I don’t think any of us are particularly happy with the state of America, but we still embrace the fact that we are Black Americans, even with all of the things that have happened in history,” King told me.
King started out playing a rebellious teen on the 1980s sitcom 227, snagged supporting roles in early-’90s John Singleton films such as Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice, and returned to television in the aughts in The Boondocks and Southland. Along the way, she picked up numerous acting awards: four Emmys (two for American Crime, and one each for Seven Seconds and Watchmen), a Golden Globe, and an Oscar (both for If Beale Street Could Talk). In the past decade, her work as a director, initially on episodes of Scandal and Insecure, opened up new avenues for her as a storyteller who edges all of us closer to a clearer understanding of what it’s like to be Black in America.
Her feature directorial debut, One Night in Miami…, based on Kemp Powers’s play of the same name, is a fictionalized account of the real night in February 1964 that civil rights leader Malcolm X, championship heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), NFL fullback Jim Brown, and soul musician Sam Cooke spent together. In King’s take, just months before both Malcolm X and Cooke would be killed, the men discuss the topics of colorism and economic freedom for Black Americans, disagree on the ways their unique, individual talents should intersect with their social responsibility as public figures, and wrangle with Malcolm X and Ali’s tricky relationship with the Nation of Islam. King can’t pinpoint the exact moment she realized she was a director, but said that in some ways she felt like she had prepared for this moment in her career throughout her entire life. “As an actor, I was paying attention and not really knowing why I was paying attention—why I would stay behind, why I would be on set when it wasn’t even my scene,” she said. “I didn’t really know why then, but I know now.”
The location for the W shoot was the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was a hot spot of sorts for Black celebrities like Little Richard and Hattie McDaniel in the 1940s and ’50s. Looking both chic and practical in a utilitarian black jumpsuit and head wrap, paired with black Gucci ankle boots embossed with crystals, King was joined by Davis, the undisputed star of last year’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as well as Davis’s husband, Julius Tennon, an actor and a producer, and their 10-year-old daughter, Genesis. Years ago, King met Davis at Alfre Woodard’s annual Oscars Sistahs Soirée, which celebrates women of color in Hollywood. At that event, Davis explained, after cocktails and dinner, “The media leaves, and then we just let loose; shoes come off, and makeup is wiped off.” That’s when their friendship began. The two would run into each other here and there during awards season, and with Tennon often appearing alongside Davis at various Hollywood events, King got to know him better too. “I loved that Julius always seemed to be very protective of Viola, but not in a way that looked problematic,” King told me. “He really feels like a partner.”
As production assistants and hair and makeup crews buzzed around—maintaining appropriate Covid protocols—King sat at a table across from Genesis, who is a typical fifth-grader, obsessed with Billie Eilish and TikTok. But, as it turned out, she is a huge fan of King’s, as well. “I’m talking to a legend right now,” Genesis said excitedly. “Well, your mom is a legend,” the director replied. “What would you like me to call you?” Genesis politely asked, adding that her mom “might want me to call you Ms. King.” The director said that calling her by her first name was fine, “or you can call me whatever your mom wants you to call me. By the end of this, you’ll be calling me Auntie Regina!”
King explained to Genesis the gist of the shoot’s narrative: A family enjoys a Saturday afternoon at home, Mom and Dad go out on the town that night, the following morning they all head to church, and once they’re back home, Mom receives a horrible phone call. In preparation, King, Davis, and Ruth E. Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer who styled the shoot, studied photographs by the artist Carrie Mae Weems, who is known for her subtle documentation of Black domestic life. “I’m not really interested in being a part of something if it doesn’t feel collaborative, whether it is as a director, an actor, or a producer,” King said. “By not wanting to include other people’s ideas, you could end up with something really unimaginative.” King homed in on Weems’s work especially for the scene in which Davis receives the bad news. Carter, meanwhile, turned to the late Cicely Tyson for stylistic inspiration, choosing outfits in rich fabrics that visually registered their softness on film. “You’re looking for the feeling of it,” Carter said of how she used each piece to reinforce King’s narrative. “That’s what connects you to the characters, who they are.”
Outside the house, the family ad-libbed and snapped greens into a large bowl. Davis and Tennon joked about tossing some bones into the broth and saving the pot liquor, and conjured up an imaginary guest list for their meal. Then they all danced in the backyard. According to Genesis, this was not far from the general daily vibe in the real Tennon-Davis household. “Music is always playing,” she whispered to me, while her parents posed for another shot in the backyard.
As the family sat together for a scene of consolation following Davis’s wrenching phone call, the upbeat playlist transitioned to Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released,” a song that took on special significance for King as she was preparing to direct One Night in Miami… “It’s sad, but we still have this thing about us as Black people that, while we have the burden, we believe in giving it to God, and that our spirits are or will eventually be freed,” King said. “You feel the weight of the world, but you’re hearing Nina’s voice and what she’s saying, and somehow you believe it’s going to be okay.”
Davis later told me that King’s insistence on capturing Black life in its totality was what drew her to participate in this project. “There’s a life beyond the tragedy, there’s life even within the tragedy, and there was a life before the tragedy,” she said. “That you can be experiencing moments of joy when tragedy comes in and invades your life, and then it melts into something else—we understand that about life in general, but not always with Black folks in it. This is the first time I’ve ever done a photo shoot like this.”
That wasn’t the only way in which working with King was atypical for Davis. For all the progress that’s been made, racial stereotypes are still very much alive in Hollywood. “It becomes about reinterpreting who we are to either look better than what we are, more noble, more aesthetically beautiful in a sort of assimilationist realm, or it’s another version of Blackness that is downtrodden,” Davis lamented. When she starred in How to Get Away With Murder, for instance, studio executives scoffed at the idea that she could be considered sexy enough to have an attractive husband on the show. “I feel like there is still a filter that we have to go through, and by the time you see us on-screen, we’ve become almost a Mr. Potato Head of who we actually are,” she continued. “You’ve got to snip out this part for white people because it’ll become an indictment. And then what’s left is a huge lie. An apologetic lie.”
Whether she’s working on a big-scale project like One Night in Miami… or a more intimate one, like this one with her friend Davis, King makes a point of tackling the space between art and social responsibility in a deeply personal way. She is someone who, as Davis said, seeks to “give you life straight, no chaser.” Her ultimate goal is to capture a spectrum of emotions without shying away from the more unpleasant facets of life—Black life in particular—in order to reveal the truth. “In anyone’s work, we’re all products of our environment,” King said after the shoot. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Is there a difference in your perspective because you’re a woman?’ And I say, ‘Yes, but the difference is because it’s Regina.’ The way Regina would tell the story is different from the way another Black female director would tell the story. The experiences that made us who we are, are all being used in the storytelling.”