Viola Davis, Inside Out
April 12, 2022
Article taken from The New York Times.
How she drew on a life of private hardship to become one of the greatest actors of her generation.
For a month, Viola Davis had been stuck. In the spring of 2020, in the late nights of lockdown, she set out to write her memoir. She had her routine: Get out of bed in the middle of the night, make herself a cup of tea, start writing in her movie room, fall asleep in one of its leather recliners, wake up, write some more, nod off again. But for weeks, she couldn’t figure out exactly where to begin. Should she start with her life as a celebrity, or the beauty contest she lost when she was a child, or the fact that people always wanted to hug her when they ran into her in public? Nothing worked.
Then one night, a conversation she had years ago with Will Smith on the set of “Suicide Squad” came floating back into her consciousness. He asked her who she really was, if she had been honest enough with herself to know the answer. She was 50 at the time and replied confidently, indignantly, that yes, she knew. He tried again, saying: “Look, I’m always going to be that 15-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke up with him. That’s always going to be me. So, who are you?”
A memory returned to her. When she was in third grade, a group of eight or nine boys made a game out of chasing her home at the end of the school day. They would taunt her, yelling insults and slurs, throwing stones and bricks at her, while she ducked and dodged and wept.
One day, the boys caught her. Her shoes were worn through to the bottom, which slowed her down. (Usually she would run barefoot, her shoes in her hands, but it was winter in Central Falls, R.I., where she grew up.) The boys pinned her arms back and took her to their ringleader, who would decide what to do with her next. They were all white, except for the ringleader. He was a Cape Verdean boy who identified as Portuguese to differentiate himself from African Americans, despite being nearly the same shade as Davis. Unlike her, he could use his foreign birth to distance himself from the town’s racism: He wasn’t like those Black people.
“She’s ugly!” he said. “Black f***ing n****r.”
“I don’t know why you’re saying that to me,” she said. “You’re Black, too!”
Time slowed down. The ringleader howled in fury, screaming that he wasn’t Black at all, that she should never let him hear her call him that again. He punched her, and the rest of the boys threw her onto the ground and kicked snow on her.
By the time Davis and Smith had that conversation in 2015, she was a bona fide star: She had been nominated for two Oscars, won two Tonys and was playing the lead role in a network television show, “How to Get Away with Murder.” (“Hell, Oprah knew who I was,” she writes.) But in that conversation, she realized that not only had she remained that terrified little girl, tormented for the color of her skin, but that she also defined herself by that fear. All these years later, she was still running, trying to dodge the myriad tribulations — anti-Blackness, colorism, racism, classism, misogyny — that she had faced, other people’s problems with her. Davis’s early life is dark and unnerving, full of blood, bruises, loss, grief, death, trauma. But that day after school was perhaps her most wounding memory: It was the first time her spirit and heart were broken. She had her beginning.
To watch Davis act is to witness a deep-sea plunge into a feeling: Even when her characters are opaque, you can sense her under the surface, empathetic and searching. This skill has been on display since the beginning of her film career, when she garnered award nominations for performances that were fewer than 15 minutes long. There’s an industry achievement called the Triple Crown of Acting: an actor winning an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony. Only 24 actors hold the title, and Davis is the only African American.
Davis is also, then, a member of the small troupe of former theater actors who have made the jump to movie stardom, and you can recognize that gravitas, that same finesse that makes me sit up straighter whenever I see James Earl Jones onscreen. But there is also vulnerability alongside her poise. The more time I spent with her, the more I wondered if, by embodying someone else’s tragedies, she was able to wrench her own to the surface. Reading her memoir, “Finding Me,” which is being published on April 26, you understand where her ability comes from: Only someone who has already been dragged into the depths of emotion readily knows how to get back there.
Davis told me that there’s so much vanity in Hollywood that she thinks people are afraid to take the nonpretty roles. “It’s more important for me to see the mess and the imperfection along with the beauty and all of that, for me to feel validated,” she said. “If it’s not there, then I feel, once again, the same way I felt when I was keeping secrets as a kid. But the only reason to keep secrets is because of shame. I don’t want to do that anymore.”
In one of our first conversations, Davis described the difference between method acting, which requires a performer to completely subsume herself into the life of her character, and a more technical approach that might, say, rely on breathing techniques to be able to readily cry. “I believe in the marriage of both, because I want to go home at the end of the day,” she said. She thinks that actors need to study life itself. Feelings are never simple; the mind wanders off track. “I always use this example of when my dad died, and we were devastated,” she told me. But at the wake, when people streamed through the doors to pay their respects, “it became this big reunion of laughing and remembering — real laughter to real joy, then tears. But I was observing my thoughts, and I went from being devastated one moment to thinking about what I was going to eat.” It’s like a Chekhov play: You can’t tell the story of the joy without telling the story of the pain alongside it.
“Your thoughts go every which way,” she said. “They run the gamut. There’s a wide berth of life. It’s like, as soon as you think your life is falling apart, then you’re laughing hysterically. That’s how life works.”
Davis was born in 1965 on a plantation in South Carolina. Her grandparents were sharecroppers who raised 11 children in a single-room house. Mae Alice and Dan Davis, her parents, moved Viola and two of her older siblings to Rhode Island soon after Davis’s birth, so that her father could find a better job. Dan was a well-regarded but underpaid horse groomer. He also regularly abused his wife after drinking binges, stabbing her in the neck with a pencil or thrashing her with a wood plank. Sometimes Davis would arrive home and see droplets of blood leading to the front door; at least once, Dan asked his daughters to help him look for their mother, who had run away in the middle of a beating, so he could kill her.
The family rarely had heat, hot water, gas, soap, a working phone or a toilet that flushed. Rats overtook their home, so ravenous that they ate the faces off Davis’s dolls. She and sisters would tie bedsheets around their necks before they went to sleep to stave off rat bites. Her father often beat her mother at night, and Davis started wetting the bed, a habit she didn’t break until she was a teenager. The conditions of her home meant that she often couldn’t wash up or change into another set of clean clothes. A teacher shamed her about her hygiene but never asked the root cause. Other teachers just ignored her: One day, Davis raised her hand to go to the bathroom, but the teacher never called on her, so she peed in the seat. The teacher sent her home, and the next day, when she arrived back at her desk, the urine was still pooled in her chair. Davis surmised that she was so disgusting that even the janitor didn’t want to clean her mess. She was 6 years old.
Her sisters were her anchor. The eldest, Dianne, had recently reunited with her siblings, moving from their grandparents’ home in the South, and Viola was obsessed with her. She had a new coat and pocket change, and she smelled nice. It was the first time Dianne saw how the rest of her family lived, and she decided that her baby sister needed to get out. She whispered to Viola: “You need to have a really clear idea of how you’re going to make it out if you don’t want to be poor for the rest of your life. You have to decide what you want to be. Then you have to work really hard.”
One evening, Davis sat watching TV, the working set sitting atop a broken one, connected to an extension cord from one of the few functioning outlets in her home. “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” came on, and for the first time, Davis saw a dark-skinned woman, with full lips and a short Afro, on the screen. She thought the woman was beautiful; she thought the woman looked just like her mother. “My heart stopped beating,” she writes. “It was like a hand reached for mine, and I finally saw my way out.” Dianne had made clear that Viola could be somebody. Cicely Tyson was somebody Viola could be.
When she was 14, Davis intervened in one of her parents’ fights for the first time. Her father stood opposite his wife, screaming and carrying on, a drinking glass in his hand like a dare. “ ‘Tell me I won’t bust yo’ head open, Mae Alice? Tell me I won’t?’” she writes. Davis tried to cut in, her 18-month-old sister in her arms, calmly pleading for him to stop.
Dan lifted his arm and smashed the glass onto Mae Alice’s face. A shard sliced her temple. As he moved to swing again, Davis yelled. Dan froze, still gripping the glass. “I screamed, ‘Give it to me!’” she writes. “Screaming as if the louder I became the more my fear would be released.” It worked. Her father handed Viola the glass, and she stashed it away.
Davis grew up to be the sort of actor whose range feels best measured by her steady command of pressure: maintaining it, raising it, letting it go. She sets the tone of every scene, the eyes of her castmates flicking toward her as soon as she appears, as if reacting to her is a crucial part of the job. She often plays characters who cry only in the moments she’s inhabiting, weeping as if it were a rare, almost undignified departure from their norm. Her name has become internet shorthand for dramatic crying: After an episode of HBO’s “Euphoria” this winter in which Zendaya sobbed and snotted her way through a scene, she drew enthusiastic comparisons to Davis. Davis doesn’t cry so much as she leaks, her eyes and nose like faucets. During her performance as Mrs. Miller in the 2008 movie “Doubt,” she cries one drop at a time. Her tears hang over the edges of her lashes; a single teardrop stays on its precipice for 15 seconds. Mucus runs down her face undisturbed for two minutes, an eternity, its very presence signaling something terribly wrong. In the 2016 film adaptation of “Fences,” when her character unloads her stymied dreams onto her husband, her curled upper lip is no match for the snot dripping down her face.
In real life, Davis doesn’t cry that much. “As a matter of fact, if someone confronted me with something, I would probably come at them with more unbridled anger than tears,” she said one March afternoon at her home in Los Angeles. When I arrived, her dog, Bailey, greeted me with an enthusiastic familiarity; Davis laughed and wondered aloud whether he thought I was her sister. Eventually, we made our way to the movie room, where she sat curled up under a plush blanket. She wore a dark head wrap knotted in the front and a key-lime linen jumpsuit. Davis is goofy and surprisingly coarse (her favorite swear words, she said, are basically unchanged from when she was 8), and looking at her, it was difficult to imagine that anyone had ever doubted her beauty.
In order for Davis to descend into a new character, she told me, she first has to become a “human whisperer,” inviting the person into her life and making space for her revelations. She’s the vessel, not the creator. From a script, an actor may learn only the broad strokes of her character, and the rest is up to her to intuit. “You begin to ask your questions based on those facts,” Davis said. Say your character is 300 pounds. “ ‘Why are you so big?’ ‘Oh, I eat too much.’ ‘Well, why do you eat too much?’ ‘Because it comforts me.’ ‘Well, why does it comfort you?’ ‘Because I have a lot of anxiety.’ ‘Why do you have a lot of anxiety?’ ‘Because I was sexually abused when I was 5. And every time I go to bed at night, I think about that sexual abuse, and I can’t go to sleep, so I eat.’” She punched the air. “Bam. You have a character. Keep asking why.” This has sometimes led her to doing intensive preparation, even for minor roles. After three weeks of rehearsals for “Doubt,” for example, she still wasn’t able to figure out Mrs. Miller. She went home and wrote a 100-page biography of the character, finally cracking her open after a discussion with a college professor, who explained why a mother would turn a blind eye to a priest abusing her son: She had no other choice. The bigger threat to her son’s well-being was his homophobic father, who might kill him if he found out he was gay. She was protecting her son the only way she knew how.
Denzel Washington directed Davis as an absent mother in the 2002 film “Antwone Fisher” and in “Fences,” in which he also co-starred, and he spoke of her work with deep respect. “Acting is investigative journalism, and we interpret the world differently,” he said. “The beginning work is similar: You circle the subject, your character.” Washington studied journalism at Fordham University, but he learned this strategy, he said, from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whom he met while researching a role. “She, as an actress, will circle. I don’t know if she goes inside out or outside in, but you circle it, for lack of a better word, and she makes it her own, and you can’t take it from her, and you better keep up with her.”
Talking to Davis about herself feels both analytical and spiritual, as if a flower child went to therapy. When she described how she emotes, she kept likening herself to a prehistoric man, standing at the edge of an ocean, slowly gaining sentience: “ ‘Who the hell am I?’” she said. “ ‘Who made me? Is there someone out there who I can talk to? Who loves me? Why do I have feet? Can I speak?’” Davis told me that too often the artistic representations of Black people are flattened into pure devices, who, say, inspire the white heroine, or comfort the white heroine, or support the white heroine’s decision to get a divorce and fly to Bali. Early in her career, she was relegated to those sorts of parts, so she tried to sneak a bit of humanity into her scenes, giving unmemorable stereotypes some life.
The author Zora Neale Hurston argued that Black life in fiction should be so realistic that it feels like eavesdropping; true authenticity would encapsulate a feeling of discovery. Davis embodies this in her acting: It can seem so truthful that it feels almost uncomfortable, as if you’ve barged in on something you weren’t supposed to see. By going slightly too far, letting her tears drip uninterrupted, she lets you in on a secret no one else will tell.
Soon after she saw Cicely Tyson on television, Davis and her three older sisters entered a local contest with a skit they based on the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.” They won — gift certificates and a softball set, including a bat that they used to kill rats in their home. But for Davis, the real prize was recognition — not just of her talent but of her personhood. She writes: “We weren’t interested in the softball set. We just wanted to win. We wanted to be somebody. We wanted to be SOMEBODY.”
When she was 14, she participated in an Upward Bound program for low-income high school students, where an acting coach encouraged her to pursue acting professionally. Later, a teacher recommended she apply to a national performing-arts competition. She auditioned with two pieces from “Everyman” and “Runaways,” which, she writes, “had a lot of great monologues about feeling abandoned.” She was flown out to Miami for the contest, where she was named a promising young artist. Eventually, she studied theater at Rhode Island College. For money, she took multiple buses to her hometown, worked a few shifts at the local drugstore, slept on her parents’ floor and then headed back to school in the morning.
After graduation, Davis wanted more training, but she could afford to apply to only one conservatory. She chose the Juilliard School, squeezing in her afternoon audition in New York before performing in her first professional production that evening in Rhode Island. “I just thought you should know, I’ve got 45 minutes,” she told the faculty. She didn’t realize the audition process typically took three days. She explained the situation, the train she absolutely had to catch. “You have to tell me whether I’m in or out.” She got in.
But after enrolling at Juilliard, she felt trapped, limited by its strictly Eurocentric approach. She spent her days squeezing herself into corsets or powdered wigs that never fit over her braids, listening to classmates ponder how good life would have been in the 18th century, an imaginative game enjoyable only for white people. Juilliard was about shaping a student into a “perfect white actor,” she writes. “The absolute shameful objective of this training was clear — make every aspect of your Blackness disappear. How the hell do I do that? And more importantly, WHY??!!!”
She applied for a scholarship that would allow her to spend the summer in Gambia. In her application essay, Davis wrote about the burden of performing material that wasn’t written for people like herself. There was no cultural connection or recognition — she felt lost and uninspired. That summer, she was on a flight to West Africa, with a group of people who wanted to study the music, dance and folklore of various tribes.
Immediately after landing, she fell in love: the ocean wind, the faint smell of incense, the oranges and purples of twilight. The people of the Mandinka tribe, with whom she visited, embraced her group like family. She went to a baby-naming ceremony, a wrestling match; she watched as women drummed and danced. Her fixation with “classical training” melted away. Finally, after years of acting, she was witnessing art, true genius. “I left Africa 15 pounds lighter, four shades darker and so shifted that I couldn’t go back to what was,” she writes.
Her time at Juilliard was ending, and she was eager to jump into a new chapter of her life, but all the roles she auditioned for — even in Black productions — were limiting: The only roles she was being seriously considered for were drug addicts. She tried out for other parts, but casting directors thought she was “too dark” and “not classically beautiful” enough to play a romantic lead.
A few plays came her way, but she barely made enough money to live on, let alone pay off her tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. She survived on white rice from a Chinese restaurant, with $3 wings if she could afford it; she slept on a futon on the floor of a shared room.
Her agent asked her to audition for the touring company of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” for the role of the strong-willed and guarded Vera, who must decide if she can trust her cheating ex-boyfriend again. She got the part, and after touring for a year, she made her Broadway debut. She received a Tony nomination for the role, but her life was hardly glamorous. A few of her siblings, she writes, were struggling with drugs or money issues, and her parents, still together, cared for some of their children. Davis sent home as much money as she could, racked with a sort of survivor’s guilt. “If I saved anyone, I had found my purpose, and that was the way it was supposed to work,” she said. “You make it out and go back to pull everyone else out.”
After her success in “Seven Guitars,” theater parts came steadily, and she finally made enough money to afford premium health insurance. An operation to remove nine uterine fibroids gave her a small window of fertility. She was in her early 30s, and every child she passed on the street made her want her own, but she had been in only two relationships, neither of them any good, and there was no one on the horizon. One of her castmates in a production of “A Raisin in the Sun” encouraged her to ask God for a nice man. One night, she got down on her knees: “God, you have not heard from me in a long time. I know you’re surprised. My name is Viola Davis.” She went through her requests: a Black man, a former athlete, someone from the country, someone who already had children. A few weeks later, on the set of a television show, Julius Tennon — a handsome, divorced Black actor from Texas with two grown children — played opposite her in a scene.
Within four years, they were married. But the reproductive challenges kept coming: She had a myomectomy, this time to remove 33 fibroids. It felt as though the women in her family were cursed. Two of her sisters nearly bled to death after labor and had hysterectomies. Some years later, she had one, too — during an operation on an abscessed fallopian tube. (Before going under, she told the surgeon, “Let me tell you something, if I wake up and my uterus is still here, I’m going to kick your ass.”) With Tennon, she eventually adopted a daughter, Genesis, inspired by the fellow actress Lorraine Toussaint, who adopted a child because she didn’t want “series regular” to be the only words on her tombstone.
After years of therapy, Davis healed her relationship with her father, who had transformed into a docile, sweet older man trying to make amends for his past; he spent the last years of his life catering to the needs of his wife and family, as if every single one of his remaining days could be an apology. Some films floated her way, but none of the material was particularly meaty.
Then, in 2007, Davis beat out five other actresses — Audra McDonald, Sanaa Lathan, Taraji P. Henson, Sophie Okonedo and Adriane Lenox — for the role of Mrs. Miller in “Doubt.” It was more than 5-year-old Davis could’ve dreamed: acting opposite Meryl Streep, being directed by John Patrick Shanley, working on a prestige film. Davis had finally reached the summit desired by so many professional actors — awards bait. Of her performance, the film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “It lasts about 10 minutes, but it is the emotional heart and soul of ‘Doubt,’ and if Viola Davis isn’t nominated by the Academy, an injustice will have been done. She goes face to face with the pre-eminent film actress of this generation, and it is a confrontation of two equals that generates terrifying power.”
There was no injustice: Davis was nominated for best actress in a supporting role, though she lost. Then in 2010, she won her second Tony, for playing Rose Maxson in “Fences.” The next year, she starred in “The Help.” Davis played Aibileen Clark, a maid working for a white socialite in the 1960s in Jackson, Miss., who shared her stories of racism and mistreatment with a young, progressive white female reporter. The film, one of the most successful endeavors of the white-savior genre, was nominated for four Oscars, including one for Davis for best actress. After “The Help,” Davis had two Tony Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and two Oscar nominations — and no offers for leading roles. People would call with a few days of filming here, a few days there. Her life had changed, but Hollywood hadn’t much. She still felt sidelined for her skin tone.
But then she got a call from Shonda Rhimes. She and Peter Nowalk were developing a sexy, soapy prime-time drama for ABC, “How to Get Away with Murder,” and they offered Davis the lead role as Annalise Keating. (In an email, Rhimes wrote that she was shocked when Davis, their dream choice, agreed to a meeting. “I remember saying we may as well ask and let her say no so at least we can say that we asked.”) Before the series, Davis’s biggest roles had been strong, tough, sharp but sexually neutered women, as if the deepness of her skin tone and her sensuality were inversely correlated. A friend told her she overheard some male and female actors, all Black, saying she wasn’t pretty enough to pull it off. For the first time in her professional career, Davis couldn’t shake all the racial criticisms she had heard over her career. She was 47 and terrified. She took the job anyway.
Annalise is a hard-nosed, highly sought-after professor and lawyer; in the pilot, she’s compared to Alan Dershowitz. She has a white academic husband and a Black cop boyfriend and a former female lover. She is also maybe a sociopath. The way Davis tried to make Annalise realistic was to have her become completely different in private than she was in public. Before accepting the role, Davis asked that they write a scene in which Annalise removed her wig and makeup, which became the most memorable scene in the series’s run. “The TV and film business is saturated with people who think they’re writing something human when it’s really a gimmick,” she writes. “But if I took the wig off in a brutal, private moment and took off the makeup, it would force them to write for THAT woman.”
Davis won an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work that season and has since moved from success to success. There was finally an Oscar for her performance in the movie version of “Fences.” She was cast in a recurring role in the D.C. Comics “Suicide Squad” franchise and continued to be able to play characters with the depth she craved, including the fearless Veronica Rawlings in “Widows” and the cantankerous diva Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which earned her a fourth Oscar nomination last year. She and her husband used the production company they started, JuVee Productions, to work on their own projects, including “The Woman King,” a historical epic about the all-female army of the Dahomey Kingdom that has been pitched as a Black female “Braveheart,” which premieres in the fall. This month, Davis stars as Michelle Obama in the Showtime series “The First Lady.”
When I spoke with Denzel Washington, he described a conversation with his daughter before she auditioned for the acting program at New York University. She had performed a dry run of her monologue for him. He told her he had good news and bad. The good: She was talented. The bad: “It’s going to be harder for you,” he said. “Because you’re not the skinny light-skinned chick.” He told her that casting directors wouldn’t want to see her in substantial roles, that they would want to cast her as a friend or a sidekick. His advice? “Just follow Viola Davis,” he said. “Look at what she’s doing, and know that, on the other side of it, even if it takes longer, you can be where she is.”
Early in her career, after a performance of Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” — “absolutely an Everyman tragedy story,” Davis said — she and the rest of her cast, all Black, hosted a talk-back. A white audience member, she recalls, asked why he should have to care about the lead character: “It’s not like he’s James Brown or anyone famous.” (Davis would later go on to play Brown’s mother, Susie, in a 2014 biopic of the singer.) “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” she told me. “I don’t think that people see the value in a lot of Black people unless you made it into a history book. I don’t think they think your life matters. I don’t think they feel like you’re interesting if you’re ordinary. And that is, absolutely, without question, not the case with white people.”
Zora Neale Hurston might’ve called this a confinement “to the spectacular,” or focusing so much on uplifting the race from its oppressive shackles that you start to mythologize it. Sure, race is always relevant, and stories that use it as a prism are largely edifying, giving dimension to the figures in our history books. “I think our response as Black people — and I get it, from so many years of oppression and dehumanization — has been about putting images out there that are positive and likable and beautiful,” Davis said. But it’s an overcorrection, she cautioned, a glossing over: “That image and message shouldn’t be more important than the truth.”
The challenge for the Black artist, she says, is that “the audience they’re trying to usually reach are not people who look like us, and not people who get us, and not people who know who we are.” Acting, as Davis repeatedly told me, is about portraying people living life. Contemporary Black dramas often posit that Black lives are either secondary (best friends, drug dealers, therapists) or extraordinary (healers, fighters, heroes), when life is rarely one or the other. Davis fills in the in-between, rescuing stories from the restrictive imagination of whiteness: She plays the truth, and we see it reflected back at us in our shade.
Over her career, she has become the sort of celebrity you want to claim as distant family; maybe whatever greatness runs through her veins also runs through your own. Without exaggeration, every single Black person I told about this article asked me to tell Davis hello — not that they loved her work or that they were a fan, just to pass along a greeting, as if they were extending a conversation they had long been having. The beauty of Blackness is the myth that across diasporic differences, we’re all part of the same extensive, sprawling, complicated family, accountable to and for one another. It’s impossible, of course, but in the face of entrenched dehumanization, it feels necessary, the relief in the knowledge of a “we.” It’s easy to root for her when her wins feel like your own.
For years, I watched “How to Get Away With Murder” every single week, for no discernible reason. In 2014, when it premiered, I had only a passing familiarity with Davis, had never seen any of Rhimes’s other work and hadn’t watched much network television since the finale of “30 Rock.” (I also hadn’t seen the article in this newspaper that called Davis “less classically beautiful” than Kerry Washington.) But something compelled me to keep with it. It wasn’t as simple as being drawn to Davis because we slightly resemble each other, but I liked that the character kept surprising me, twisting away from what I expected. A product of Shondaland, Annalise had an absurd inner life, and everyone around her couldn’t stop getting murdered, but she had an inner life! She had flaws and no eyebrows and real, traumatic issues with her family and sometimes bad wigs. Annalise wasn’t an inspiration; she was neither a stereotype nor a gimmick, neither a white writers’ room’s stab at a Black person nor a tortured Black person’s idea of what dark-skinned women are like. She was a person.
Davis’s ascent feels like delicious revenge, an “I’ll show you,” pushing past obstacles like a rose through concrete. She fought her way to a position where she could demand the same respect denied to her in her childhood. It’s the same respect denied to her mother, repeatedly beaten; to her grandparents, who had to stuff all their dreams into a one-room house on a white man’s land. It’s the same respect long denied to Black women, especially dark-skinned ones.
Each time I finished an interview with Davis, she escorted me outside and waited with me until my car arrived. In Los Angeles, we hugged goodbye. Out the window, I could see she had taken a familiar stance — legs spread wide, hips jutting forward, one hand on her back, the other waving — as she watched the car drive off, waiting until it passed her house before she went back inside. The Uber driver, a Black man, turned and asked me, “Is that your mom?” I laughed and said no, but admitted that we do sort of look alike, so I could see why he asked. It wasn’t just that, he said: As soon as he pulled up, she was watching him closely, as if she were wondering if she could trust him enough to keep me safe.
One day last February, I joined Davis on location about an hour outside Cape Town as she wrapped up filming “The Woman King.” Dozens of extras, all brown- and dark-skinned, congregated in the set’s main square. They were dressed in thick fabrics of tropical colors, marking their steps. Davis plays Nanisca, the army’s general, and she was filming a victory dance with her warriors. She wore a bandeau, a cape and a printed skirt in an aristocratic purple, with thin golden cuffs on her upper arms and a necklace of shark teeth. Her hair was in a blown-out Afro, with a golden rope securing a small section at the top of her head. While her makeup artist rubbed cream into her back, careful not to disturb a spatter of painted-on scars, she watched the dancers, marking moves along with them using only her forearms and her feet. She rose from her chair and started dancing on her way toward the camera, grinding her hips in precise circles and smirking, eliciting a shower of “AYYYEEE”s from crew members.
The scene they were working on began with a tight shot of Davis watching the dance wistfully from a perch. Her face continuously transformed: In one second, she looked as if she were trying not to smile, then immediately as though she were fighting back tears. She had been filming close shots all day, and her range of emotions was vast but unambiguous: resigned, fearful, disturbed, flummoxed, each change descending onto her face as smoothly as a blind.
Davis cupped the face of the actor playing opposite her, touching their foreheads together, a feud between them finally settled. In one take, she smiled tightly, and for a moment she was washed by disappointment; in another, she clasped her co-star’s face with great intention and smiled wide and sweet. She then turned to face her warriors, already celebrating the end of the battle, and joined the fray. Drummers kept them in a polyrhythm. Her back to the camera, she rolled her hips, her hands thrown to the air. She hiked her knees to her stomach, her feet two-stepping, all her movements light but still rooted to the ground. The dancers circled her, cheering her on. When the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, yelled “cut,” everyone burst into applause.
For most of the cast, it was the last scene they would film. Davis joined the principals in a group hug, and the dancers, mostly hired locals, began gleefully singing in Xhosa while they danced and embraced one another. When I asked Phumzile Manana, the film’s publicist, if the singing had any significance, she said they were “just keeping vibes alive, I suppose.”
It took Davis six years to get “The Woman King” made, because the studios were reluctant to back a film that featured so many Black women. That they were all dark-skinned — the production cast women from across the diaspora, Black Americans and South Africans and Brits and Jamaicans and West Africans — might have made it even harder. “All praise to ‘Black Panther’ and its success, because that absolutely paved the way for people to see the possibility of this movie,” Prince-Bythewood told me. “‘The Woman King,’” Davis said, “reflected all of the things that the world told me were limiting: Black women with crinkly, curly hair who were darker than a paper bag, who were warriors.”
Seconds after she wrapped her final scene, Davis was in a black robe and Crocs, milling around for pictures and goodbyes before she gave a short speech. “The thing about what we do is that you can be transported back in time,” she said. “You can be whoever you want to be. And, you know, for Black people, sometimes the only thing we’ve had to rely on is our imaginations.”
As she talked about how powerful it was to watch these Black women transform into warriors, a sea of dark faces, crested with braids and fades and Bantu knots, reflected back at her. “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly,” she told them. “We’ve been so misunderstood. Limited, invisible for so long. And now, people are going to see us be butterflies.”