Awards

Viola Davis on ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and Black Artists Being the ‘Leftovers’ In Hollywood

As accomplished as Academy Award winner Viola Davis is in the industry, she still feels the unfair comparisons and judgments for the roles she chooses. “It’s so hard to get films made that don’t fit a certain box of how they see us,” Davis tells Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast. “Inclusivity cannot be a hashtag. You’ve got to write roles for people of color that are culturally specific – that is just as thought out as our white counterparts’ roles, to get to the point of excellence, so that we can be considered for awards. But a lot of time with inclusivity, it’s a second thought. We’re the leftovers.”

Davis broke a record this year when she was nominated by the Academy Awards for best actress in a leading role, becoming the most nominated Black woman in Oscar history (with four nominations in total). She is also just one of two Black women to ever win an Oscar and then return for another nomination – along with her former co-star Octavia Spencer (“The Help”). But this is not something to be celebrated in her eyes. “The only reason I’m breaking records is that no one has been recognized,” she says. “That ‘honor’ is a sort of limited honor. The problem is with the moviemaking business itself, not the awards. You cannot nominate anyone for awards if there are no films being made.”

In this week’s episode, Davis talks about her experience working on Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” based on the August Wilson play and directed by George C. Wolfe. She also discusses her frustration with an overwhelmingly white industry, from the projects that are greenlit by studios down to the critics and journalists that cover the films that are made. Also in this episode, writer and director Ramin Bahrani discusses his Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay for “The White Tiger” along with being told to “go back to his country” by a stranger while hanging out with Ava DuVernay.

During the roundtable discussion, the awards panel discusses the winners of the BAFTA Awards, where “Nomadland” triumphed once again, and what it means to the Oscar race with voting taking place starting April 15. In addition, the panel laments the closing of the Arclight and Pacific cinema chains and how and what could be done to save them. Listen below!

Davis won an Academy Award for supporting actress for “Fences” (2016), a Tony Award for actress in a play for the same role on Broadway, and an Emmy in 2015 for ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” making her the first Black woman to ever win the category. She’s revered and respected in Hollywood but is frustrated by the false narratives and perceptions of actors and the business. “Most people don’t want to be actors, they want to be famous actors,” she says. “It goes along with every other misconception that the reason you walk into a movie is that you want to be in awards consideration. I’ve done plays in church basements where I got paid $250 dollars a week and had to take a train and a bus, four hours one way just to get to the theater. THAT’S being an actor.”

The obstacles for POC in Hollywood have been well documented and the actress does see a trend toward progress. “What has gotten in the way is exploring our pathology. I think people are too concerned with the white audience understanding us, and having a way into our stories. The reason why our pathology, the study of what makes us tick is not the center of the narrative is that there’s no way in for the white audience. They don’t understand it.”

She sees “micro-aggressions with racial biases” within every facet of the industry, and receiving criticism from audiences and journalists that differ from other awards contenders like Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”) and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”).

“I always say I do the best I can with what I’ve been given. If you get a role that’s half-baked, half-explored, no understanding of that person’s psychology, pathology, Blackness, and put it even into the hands of someone who’s excellent, who’s carrying it over the finish line, you’re not going to be seen,” she says. “That’s because you have white critics who don’t understand you, a white audience that many don’t even have Black or Brown friends, or any kind of friends – so they don’t understand you unless it’s out of a history book.” Adding that many websites and publications “toe the line with a complete lack of understanding of inclusivity, diversity and race. There’s a narrative and a conversation that needs to be had but there’s not a lot of people with the ability to have it.”

For our “random circuit” question portion, Davis reveals her favorite comedy and horror films while having a childhood crush on Sylvester Stallone (“Rocky”).

When it comes writer and director Ramin Bahrani, he’s incredibly humbled and excited by his recognition from the Academy Awards: “You feel some sort of gratification that your colleagues, your peers and people that you admire, and have admired for a long time have recognized your work.” Proud of his Iranian descent, he’s also privy to the rise of AAPI hatred over the last few years, especially as it has garnered recent media attention.

He goes on to speak about being inspired to take on the adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s beloved novel, along with working with executive producer and star Priyanka Chopra Jonas, adding that “we’re brewing up another collaboration.”

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.

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