Viola Davis Proclaims "I Cannot Lead With Bull—" at Hollywood Reporter Women in Entertainment Event

At The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment event on Wednesday, Davis was honored with the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, given annually to a woman who is a trailblazer and philanthropic leader in her industry.

Viola Davis is speaking her truth, and speaking out about being a black woman in Hollywood. 

At The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment event Wednesday, Davis was honored with the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, given annually to a woman who is a trailblazer and philanthropic leader in her industry. When she took the stage, the star revealed how it can feel for her as a black actress, comparing her feelings to a scene in The Exorcist when a possessed young girl lifts up her nightgown to show "Help me" written on her stomach.

"She's somewhere in that body but being possessed by these demons, but somewhere she musters up enough courage to say 'Help me.' That's how I feel everyday in this Hollywood community and in my life, in trying to live my authentic life," Davis told the audience at Los Angeles' Milk Studios. "The demons aren't gargoyles, they aren't men with pointy noses and ears — they're other people's desire for your life, people who don't see you. People who stereotype you. People who take your pathology, your complexity, everything away from you." 

The honoree continued, "How you have to water yourself down in order to meet the standards of the community who are in charge, who is not mine. That's how it feels. And I'll tell you the worst demon of all is a lack of purpose because let me tell you something, you do not have to know what is in the hearts of people to be a leader, but, by God, you have to know what is in the heart of the leader. And what is in my heart is I cannot lead with bullshit." 

Davis spoke about bringing change to the industry with her production company JuVee productions, which she runs with husband Julius Tennon, and aiming to tell more diverse, inclusive stories. 

"We started it because I got tired of always celebrating movies that didn't have me in it. I don't mean me Viola, I mean me as a black woman. I was tired of seeing the expansive imagination of writers when they wrote the mess, the joy, the beauty, the femininity of white characters," she said. "Maybe an hour into the movie you saw the obligatory black character just kind of walking into the camera, who had a name but didn't really need to have a name because we know nothing about them." 

The actress called out The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Leave It to Beaver and similar shows as being "a lie," and added, "embrace the truth, that's my biggest gift." She also commended Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler and Greta Gerwig for their wild spirits and for being "people who just dare, who say, 'You cannot silence me.'"

To wrap up her speech, Davis said, "my big thing with JuVee Productions is there is no limit to how we see narratives for people of color — that there's only so much that I'm going to kowtow to this business. My gift to anyone is that. Don't let anybody tell you who you are. ... This is my fist pump. This is my drop the mic. This is me."  

The award was presented by Lansing herself, who commended Davis as someone who "empathizes with the underserved and she gives a voice to those who are silenced. Viola has never forgotten where she came from and she pays it forward to make sure others don't have to suffer like she did."

Aside from her Oscar-, Emmy- and Tony-winning career, the star is a leader in the fight against child hunger, serving as an ambassador for charitable initiative Hunger Is from 2014 to 2017, which raised more than $20 million to provide meals for children across the U.S. Additionally, Davis has worked to end poverty in her hometown of Central Falls, Rhode Island, and has donated to its public library, her high school alma mater and the charter school Segue Institute for Learning. Through her partnership with the Vaseline Healing Project, Davis returned to Central Falls in 2016 to launch a free health clinic for residents unable to afford health care. The actress has also been outspoken on issues of racism, pay inequality and sexual abuse in Hollywood.

Davis joins past Lansing Award recipients Tina Fey, Barbra Streisand, Shonda Rhimes, Oprah Winfrey, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren, Halle Berry, Jodie Foster, Glenn Close, Barbara Walters and 2017 honoree Jennifer Lawrence.

The Power 100 Women in Entertainment event presented by Lifetime is sponsored by American Airlines, Cadillac, Fiji Water, eOne, Gersh, Loyola Marymount University and SAG-AFTRA, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles and Entertainment Industry Foundation.