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At this point, Viola Davis is a household name. As the holder of an Academy Award, an Emmy, and two Tonys, she is the only Black actor to achieve what is known as the “triple crown of acting.” Now, with the most recent release of The Woman King, an action-packed 1800s historical epic about a group of women warriors who protect the African kingdom of Dahomey, Davis feels like she’s reached a particular peak: She told the Guardian she sees the film as “a culmination of my career over the last 33 years.”
 

But even with The Woman King’s overall success—one that Jezebel’s Kylie Cheung applauded for its delicate handling of sexual violence—it was an uphill battle to bring it to the big screen. The film was produced under JuVee Productions, Davis’ own company, after seven years of trying to convince others that this was a story worth telling. Davis put it this way:

I call it The Fight. It’s a fight to find partners who have the same vision as you, who are able to give it a green light. And then the other fight, if it’s a predominantly Black female cast, is that because we haven’t led the global box office, there’s no precedent that it will work and make the money back for the people who invest in it … The bottom line is money. It’s not about cultural impact – it’s about money.

Despite her hard-earned prestige, Davis knows that her influence as a wildly famous, decorated Black actor and producer has its limitations, admitting that she never quite felt like she possessed “ownership and agency” in Hollywood: “I can’t walk into every room and get any movie made. I actually feel pretty confident, but I can’t do that.”

Even in past projects in which Davis herself starred, the actor admits that the goal of Black storytelling still missed the mark. Davis’ role in the 2011 film The Help as Aibileen Clark, a Black maid who was the caretaker of numerous white children, has been widely criticized for perpetuating the stereotype of the modern day “mammy.” In a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, Davis first spoke out about her regrets about the film (even with it giving her an Academy Award nomination), explaining that she was disappointed in how it centered white voices. Now, reflecting on it again, Davis told the Guardian that she felt as though she’d “betrayed myself and my people.”

Davis’ feelings of alienation as a Black actor date back to her Juilliard days, where she was a student from 1989-1993. She described it as a “Eurocentric” institution—a place where she couldn’t fit in no matter how hard she tried. “I felt I came in with a wrong palette,” she said. “I was too big. I was too Black. My voice was too deep.” Davis says she finally understood acting when she saw a performance by an association of Gambian childless women known as a kañeleng. It was then that she realized, “If I don’t start with the palette of what is Viola, then I’m doing absolutely nothing. Whether or not it’s received by the masses, I cannot control. But I can control that.”

Clear-eyed about what is within her power, Davis is determined to give dark-skinned women the three-dimensionality they deserve, especially within an industry plagued with colorism. “What is in my power to change is to show people that we are more than the stamp that people have put on dark-skinned women,” she told The Guardian. “That we are sexual, that we are desirable, that we can be smart, that we are way more expansive and our identity is not determined by your gaze. I can change that. I can change the way Black women are seen, to some extent, within the industry.”

This content was originally published here.

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