Viola Davis on Diversity: "Oscars Are a Symptom of a Much Greater Issue"

Viola Davis
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Stars and showrunners share their thoughts on diversity at Elle's annual Women in Television event.

Don't blame the Oscars.

That's what Viola Davis had to say on Wednesday night when asked about the controversy-turned-crisis now facing Hollywood over the issue of race on screens both big and small. The How to Get Away With Murder star and two-time Academy Award nominee made her way down the red carpet as one of the A-list attendees at Elle's annual Women in Television dinner event at Sunset Tower in West Hollywood and opened up briefly about this week's headline-dominating discussion. 

"It's not the Oscars. The Oscars are a symptom of a much greater issue and that's the issue of the Hollywood movie-making system. How many movies are being made that have this in it," she asks as she points to the color on her skin. "More films need to be made where we can shine. That's the bottom line. The opportunity does not match the talent. There needs to be more opportunity, that's just it. And you have to invest in it."

The statement matches Davis' acceptance speech from the Emmys last fall when she picked up a best actress in a drama series trophy for her work on the ABC drama from Shonda Rhimes. In the moving moment from the Sept. 20 telecast, Davis, the first black actress to ever win a best actress Emmy for a leading role on a TV drama, said, "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity." 

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Davis, clad in Carmen Marc Valvo, joined Elle's editor-in-chief Robbie Myers at the Hearts on Fire and Olay-sponsored event along with fellow February Women in TV cover stars including Olivia Wilde and Priyanka Chopra. Other guests included Kirsten Dunst, Amanda Peet, Rebecca Romijn, Nina Dobrev, Joy Bryant, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kate Walsh, Sarah Hyland, Constance Zimmer, Malin Akerman and others. 

Davis had her own list of names ready to go, referencing the small selection of roles played by women of color in movies that received attention by the Academy. She listed Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad in Creed as well as Zoe Kravitz in Mad Max: Fury Road. But Davis, who recently partnered with Vaseline's Healing Project, didn't want to go into great detail about the issue of diversity in Hollywood because she noted that it's "a four or five hour conversation that can't be had on a red carpet because then it will be reduced to a soundbite or a hashtag." 

A few of Elle's other notable guests chimed in briefly, too, offering their take on race issues in Hollywood. 

Jenna Elfman: "Ultimately in entertainment, it's storytelling about life. So if we're making sure that we are representing our multicultural life in the stories, you can show how to have peace in the world through great storytelling involving all people. Conflict drives story and you get conflict through diversity because people come in from different moral codes and mores. It's important to have really thick and diverse casting too, to enrich the storytelling."

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Busy Phillips: "Diversity is key and something we should all be striving towards. The public speaks again and again when they see it on screen, they like it, they want it, and they'll pay for it. For whatever reason, it takes the powers that be a minute to catch up, but I feel like the message has been very clear from the shows that have been popular in the last several years, shows like Orange is the New Black and Scandal and others. People are clamoring to see themselves reflected on television. And behind the scenes, we need those voices to be able to tell those stories. Having diversity behind the camera only ensures that those stories can come through."

Juliette Lewis: "I'm looking for diversity in storytelling in all kinds of ways. I'm into the underdog perspective and what is happening on TV is f------ radical and mind-blowing. The medium itself is more conducive to diverse exploration with serialized storytelling. it's a fascinating art. 

Aja Naomi King (The Birth of a Nation): "The problem isn't with the Oscar voters, they've inherited the ability to be in this selection club. There won't be roles or opportunities for a wider array of actors until we're able to achieve diversity in the ranks of studio heads and writers. We need to make those areas of the business more inclusive or somehow see those people dare to tell stories that aren't familiar to themselves or their perspectives on life. 

Karen David (Galavant and upcoming Cold Feet): "The good news is that we are seeing more diversity on TV, and it has to start somewhere. If you start at the nucleus and let it spread, it can have a ripple effect and we are starting to see that. I get asked all the time about diversity, but growing up, I never looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'Oh, I'm Karen David and I'm brown.' I never saw that and maybe that's because I grew up in Canada and England with all walks of life, people from all over the world. The world is cosmopolitan and we should celebrate that."

Aline Brosh McKenna (co-creator/executive producer of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend): "We need to make more television shows that are about and that feature minorities. Our show is a no-brainer because we are set in West Covina and West Covina is minority white. In order to reflect our community, our show is mostly non-white. We have to be a diverse cast. It's not so much color blind as it is color aggressive. It's not just race, we are looking for different body types and different orientations and types of people because it's part of our show to have interesting faces and backgrounds. We need more of that on TV."

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Melissa Rosenberg (creator/executive producer of Jessica Jones): "If young girls and minorities could see themselves on screen, then they would know that they could be it. It is our responsibility to bring (diverse representations) to the screen. It's an uphill struggle and one that I've been fighting the good fight over for many, many years. That's why I'm super proud of Jessica Jones and proud of our diverse writers room. The fight continues."

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (co-creator/executive producer of UnReal): "Everybody needs to grow some balls. On Season 2 of our show, we're having an African American lead and it felt like a grounded and personal decision in terms of storytelling, but it's now turned out to be an important part of the conversation. In terms of being a creator and someone who has a show, it's really important to use the platform for good. I don't want to fall asleep at the wheel. We talked about feminism during the first season and that's something I am really passionate about. Now I want to move the discussion towards race."

Jennie Snyder Urman (creator/executive producer of Jane the Virgin): "For the Academy Awards, they need to figure out membership. TV is a much more inclusive place to be working right now because there are a lot of shows and a lot of different creators and topics that are covered. We have to support new voices and new talent as a community and hope that those projects are recognized."


Priyanka Chopra, Elle editor-In-chief Robbie Myers, Olivia Wilde and Viola Davis attend Elle’s 6th annual Women in Television Dinner presented by Hearts on Fire Diamonds and Olay at Sunset Tower on Jan. 20. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Elle)
 

Joy Bryant and Juliette Lewis attend attend Elle’s 6th annual Women in Television Dinner presented by Hearts on Fire Diamonds and Olay at Sunset Tower on Jan. 20. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Elle)

Karen David and Aja Naomi King, wearing Hearts on Fire Diamonds, attend Elle’s 6th annual Women in Television Dinner presented by Hearts on Fire Diamonds and Olay at Sunset Tower on Jan. 20. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Elle)

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