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Viola Davis says taking control of your destiny as diverse talent in Hollywood isn’t enough. You need to walk the walk to keep pace with stiff competition.
“The fight is not easy,” the How to Get Away With Murder star told a master class at the Toronto Film Festival moderated by Nekesa Mumbi Moody, editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter.
“There’s still a huge part of the work where you’re always fighting for your autonomy, you’re always fighting for those projects that are absolutely reflective of your talent, where you are on the same playing field as your white counterparts. And the solution is not easy,” Davis said.
Davis and husband Julius Tennon discussed launching and running their company JuVee Productions, with a mandate to give a voice to the voiceless as they follow Oprah Winfrey’s OWN and Tyler Perry studios in striving as Hollywood producers for influence on major studio lots and with streaming giants.
And that struggle for diverse talent includes a huge learning curve as you move from creating projects to getting them ready for production and the market. “We’re making up for lost time, for lost decades. At JuVee, we’re running a huge race just to get at the starting line at where people have been for many years,” Davis added.
The Hollywood star also cautioned people from underrepresented communities who want to follow her lead and be the change they want to see have to answer the question: What do you want to see? “My sensibility is like no one else’s. That’s not good or bad, it just is,” Davis said.
Tennon added nothing has been handed to JuVee Productions as it continues the fight, today with a first-look production deal with Amazon for both film and TV. “What we do is hard, because the way we want to tell stories and the narratives we want to tell, we want to see people of color across the board normalized,” he argued about finding ideas and talent and stories that are relevant to diverse audiences and a global market.
As the first Black woman to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony for acting, Davis is used to breaking new ground. But she cautioned her success and celebrity in Hollywood followed years of being a journeyman actor, including on the theatrical stage, and came when she was in her 40s.
“I’m so happy that I had a slow burn, because it’s helped me as a producer… That’s why we have so many beautiful voices in our company, because we know the road,” she added. Davis recounted how JuVee Productions started out as a vehicle for her own career as she faced hurdles to getting the roles she wanted to play, not least as she got older.
“If we weren’t the change we wanted to see, then I was going to continue to have the same kind of roles available to me. It became very obvious that we had to find the emerging artists and find that material,” Davis recalled.
So she and Tennon launched their production banner, initially to produce movies and TV series, but eventually to support diverse voices and talent beyond Davis herself. “We decided to we wanted to be the voices for the voiceless, give opportunity to those underserved and not having any opportunity to get work in the industry,” Tennon added.
JuVee Productions has projects with White actors as leads, but Black, Brown actors and other diverse talent opposite them must play authentic characters. “We don’t want them to be a device, an image, just serving a white-centric narrative. We really want autonomy for people on the periphery of narrative. That became it’s own sort of fight. We’re usually on the outskirts, serving the white character all the time,” Davis insisted.
Davis is set to appear in Netflix’s upcoming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. JuVee’s projects include The Last Defense on ABC, the documentary feature Giving Voice with Netflix, and the recently announced drama Woman King with Lupita Nyong’o.
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