Streaming services have cracked open a door for communities long shut out of Hollywood, Oscar winner Viola Davis told the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, but more imagination is still needed around black roles.
Davis, 56, currently starring as Michelle Obama in the television series “The First Lady”, admitted even her groundbreaking show “How to Get Away With Murder” had produced only fragile momentum for black women in entertainment.
“I know that when I left ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ — I don’t see a lot of dark-skinned women in big roles in TV, not even in streaming services,” she said of the show that made her the first black lead actress to win an Emmy.
Even with a trophy case full of awards, she said she was still held back by the industry’s limited imagination of who can play daring roles.
“If I wanted to play a mother whose son… was a gang member who died in drive-by shooting, I can get that made,” Davis said.
“If I play the woman who was looking to recreate herself by flying to Nice and sleeping with five men at the age of 56 looking like me, I’m going to have a hard time pushing that one even as Viola Davis because people can’t reconcile the blackness with spiritual awakening and sexuality — it’s too much.”
– ‘You have to fight’ –
Netflix, long hailed as a champion of more diverse entertainment and performers, recently reported a loss in subscribers for the first time in more than a decade.
The gloomy news sparked a round of layoffs and spending cuts.
A 2021 study of Netflix content showed that 52 percent of its series and movies had women in starring roles and more than one in three featured underrepresented groups — far higher than entertainment released in cinemas.
Davis won an Academy Award in 2017 for Best Supporting Actress for “Fences” opposite Denzel Washington and received three more nominations including as best actress in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, which ran on Netflix after a brief theatrical release.
“I see that there is quantity — there’s more out there because there are 400 shows and streaming services,” Davis told a Kering Women in Motion talk at the world’s top film festival.
“But in terms of storytelling that is as expansive as one’s imagination, that’s not happening yet… You have to really fight for those stories.”
– Rejection ‘hurts’ –
Davis on Wednesday attended the Cannes screening of the Tom Cruise flick “Top Gun: Maverick”, the sequel to the 1986 blockbuster, joined by her husband, actor Julius Tennon.
The couple have a film and television production company, JuVee, which she said they founded in response to her anger over sexism, racism and colourism — discrimination due to darker skin — despite her now decades of success in Hollywood.
“It hurts when people reject you,” she said.
“When people said that I was not pretty enough for a role — it really gets on my damn nerves, it breaks my heart, and it makes me angry.”
She said a director she had known for a decade had once repeatedly called her Louise on set which she learned was his maid’s name.
With her own company, “I can do exactly what I want to do. That was my response to all of that rejection.”