“And I’d known him for, like, ten years.”
It’s been more than 20 years, but an experience that happened to her as a younger actress has stayed with Viola Davis all these years because of the deeper implications of that moment.
While talking as part of Variety and Kering’s Women in Motion discussion at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, the Oscar-winning actress remembered a time that a director had called her by the wrong name.
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But it’s not just that he called her by a name not her own, but the name he chose.
“He called me Louise,” she shared. “And I found out it was because his maid’s name was Louise.” To make matters worse, Davis noted that she’d “known him for, like, ten years.” And it turns out it wasn’t even an isolated incident, but rather it happened repeatedly.
After a decade of knowing him as a colleague and a professional and possibly even a friend, calling her the name of another Black person in their world is demeaning and dismissive of her individuality. It also feeds into ugly stereotypes.
“I was maybe around 30 at the time, so it was a while ago,” said Davis. “But what you have to realize is that those microaggressions happen all the time.”
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Davis was asked if her prominent role on “How to Get Away with Murder,” working alongside Black creator Shonda Rhimes, and her other acclaimed works is making a difference. Does she see progress?
After saying, “Yes,” and then pausing for a moment, Davis acknowledged that she says that, but truthfully she doesn’t know. So she amended her answer to, “I hope.” At the same time, she acknowledged that even after her Emmy-winning turn on “HTGAWM” she doesn’t see a lot of dark-skinned women in lead roles on television or streaming.
“So once again that goes into ideology and ethos and mentality, and that’s speaking in the abstract,” she continued. “Why aren’t you hiring a dark-skinned woman when she walks in the room and you say she blows you away? Then create space and storytelling for her so that when she thrives, she’s not thriving despite of her circumstances, she’s thriving because of the circumstances.”
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The story of Louise came up when she was talking about the challenges of getting Black women into roles that step outside of stereotype. She said that while she’d have no problem getting a film made with her as the mother of a gangbanger shot in a drive-by, change her character to a woman in her 50s flying to Nice for a sexual awakening by sleeping with five women, and people can’t get past her Blackness to see that.
“People can’t reconcile the Blackness with the spiritual awakening and the sexuality. It’s too much for them,” she said.
“It’s too much when you look like my maid, Louise,” she said off the cuff. And then, by explanation, she shared how that persona came to be a part of her story and has stayed with her all these years.