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In her upcoming memoir, Viola Davis reveals that after she was cast in How to Get Away With Murder, she faced scrutiny over her beauty and looks from fellow Black actors due to her being darker-skinned.
The experience is chronicled in a lengthy New York Times profile, which sees the Oscar-, Tony- and SAG Award-winning actress addressing racism and colorism throughout her career — everywhere from Juilliard to Broadway’s stages to TV — in both new interviews and Finding Me: A Memoir, out April 26 from HarperOne, in partnership with Ebony Magazine Publishing.
When it came to the hit ABC series, Davis wrote that she had already had a slew of experiences around her race and her deeper skin tone within the predominantly white industry. But one of her more lasting memories was tied to her getting the role of the sharp, bold and beautiful lawyer and law professor Annalise Keating.
Davis revealed that following her casting, a friend had come to her after overhearing several actors and actresses — all of whom were Black — say that “she wasn’t pretty enough to pull it off,” according to the Times. The experience was unlike the other colorist, racist and anti-Black criticism the then 47-year-old star had endured in that she “couldn’t shake” this feedback.
However, her experience in the upcoming film The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based on actual events in the African Kingdom of Dahomey during the 18th and 19th centuries, illustrated a shift from just a half-decade ago, she told the Times. “The Woman King 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.”
In the memoir, Davis also draws on her childhood experiences with racism, detailing an anti-Black attack in the third grade — one of many times she was chased home in Central Falls, Rhode Island, by a group of around eight or nine boys, who regularly hurled insults, slurs, stones and bricks at her.
On this day, the group physically caught her and while some of the boys pinned her arms back, the leader of the group — from Cape Verdean and Black like her though he “identified as Portuguese to differentiate himself from African Americans,” according to the Times — called her both ugly and a “Black fucking” N-word. When the young Davis responded, “You’re Black, too!” he punched her.
At another point, Davis discussed the impact of anti-Black racism not just within physical communities but within institutions, including her acting school, Juilliard. The Fences star said she felt trapped after enrolling, “limited by its strictly Eurocentric approach.” Her time there resulted in her forcing her hair into wigs “that never fit over her braids” and listening to white classmates wonder out loud how good things would have been in the 18th century. “The absolute shameful objective of this training was clear — make every aspect of your Blackness disappear,” she writes.
The profile of the Woman King star also touches on her experience with an abusive father with an alcohol addiction, fertility issues and adoption. Davis shares that performing in Seven Guitars for the stage finally allowed her to afford premium health insurance, which led to the removal of nine uterine fibroids, and later, both a myomectomy to remove 33 fibroids and a hysterectomy while being operated on for an abscessed Fallopian tube.
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