Viola Davis: People Said I Wasn’t ‘Pretty Enough’ to Be Cast in ‘How To Get Away With Murder’

The Oscar-winner talks about the jarring feedback she received, even from other Black actors, after winning the role.

Viola Davis: People Said I Wasn’t ‘Pretty Enough’ to Be Cast in ‘How To Get Away With Murder’
Image:Rachel Murray / Stringer (Getty Images)

Viola Davis, an incredibly gifted actress who happens to have darker skin, is opening up about the struggles that come with working in an industry still very much ruled by the white aesthetic. In an in-depth interview with The New York Times, the 56-year-old actress talked about the unexpected reaction she received after being cast as lawyer Annalise Keating in ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, saying a friend told her that other Black actors were chattering about how “she wasn’t pretty enough to pull it off.”

“For the first time in her professional career,” NYT writer Jazmine Hughes wrote, “Davis couldn’t shake all the racial criticisms she had heard over her career. She was 47 and terrified. She took the job anyway.”

Okay, this shouldn’t need to be said, but let’s just get it out of the way: Viola Davis is stunning.

Secondly: It’s absurd that in the year 2022, Hollywood still rewards and lauds the beauty and talents of lighter-skinned Black actresses over their darker-skinned counterparts, especially when casting leading ladies. And the issue of colorism, specifically within the Black community, is a thing we need to talk about, too.

Viola Davis, dare I say, is in the same realm of talent as Meryl Streep. If you’re not convinced, check out those intense scenes in the 2008 movie Doubt, where Davis’ character Mrs. Miller confronts Sister Aloysius Beauvier, played by Streep, over suspicions that her her son is being sexually molested at his Catholic school. Davis very much holds her own against Streep in this film, making it unfathomable to see her being reduced to a shade of color.

As Jezebel columnist Zeba Blay adeptly noted:

Do people in Hollywood know colorism is a thing? That it is, in fact, the thing people should be talking about when they talk about racial inclusion, particularly for Black people? Race is a construct, yes, but it’s also true that that construct is based almost entirely on skin tone, hair texture, and features. The thing about colorism—the trick of it, really—is that it is the water in which all Black people swim, but only the people who are directly affected by it seem concerned with talking about it. This is by design: Colorism and racism are essentially different sides of the same coin.

It’s tough to be a dark-skinned Black woman in any industry, and I can attest to that. And while I’m glad that Viola Davis is one of the survivors, with her winning trajectory, how many talented Black actresses are out there with stalled careers, never having been given a chance to survive based on the amount of melatonin in their skin and their ethnic features?

Colorism, I hope, is on its way out. We’ve come to expect it from White Hollywood—but the sooner we bring it to focus within our own community, the better chance we have of weeding out the absurdity.

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