Viola Davis Says Playing Desirable Black Women Helped Her 'Redefine' Her Own 'Revolutionary' Ideas About Beauty
We can count on one hand – maybe two, if pressed – the number of times we’ve seen a dark-skinned Black woman onscreen in a leading role that shows them as desirable and sexy.
But for Viola Davis, playing a wanted woman is nothing new. The Oscar winner already checked that box while steaming up TV screens playing Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder. But in Steve McQueen’s Widows, Davis is introduced to moviegoers fully making out with her husband, played by Liam Neeson.
In Widows, Davis is a force as Veronica, a woman whose life is dramatically thrown off balance when her criminal-minded husband dies in a heist gone wrong. And while the film is a timely exploration of race, class, politics, and gentrification, Davis playing a desirable woman over 25 shouldn’t go unnoticed.
“It was very liberating for me to be offered a lead in a movie, a studio movie, where I was asked to wear my natural hair in a film, where it’s a role that’s somewhat sexualized,” Davis told ESSENCE.
“When I say sexualized, I don’t mean sexy. I mean sexualized,” the Oscar winner clarified. “Sexy — for me — is when people really try to turn the audience on. This is just a woman who’s actually just being a woman. It was revolutionary, to me, for Steve to see me in this role because it didn’t necessarily have to be a Black woman.”
Davis said that because of her age, she’s often approached to play moms, similar to her white peers. Although she admits that white actresses of a certain age are still more likely to be offered wide-ranging roles. And she’s right: Just look at Judi Dench, who plays the head of an intelligence agency in Skyfall, or Kathy Bates, who’s played everything from a bearded lady to an android.
Playing desirable Black women has not only changed Hollywood, but it’s changed the way Davis views even herself, she admitted. She revealed that it’s forced her to “redefine” her own definition of beauty.
“I’m tired of defining myself in a society that doesn’t really necessarily include me in any conversations about beauty.”
“I’m tired of defining myself in a society that doesn’t really necessarily include me in any conversations about beauty. So I had to take it back for myself,” she continued.
Davis noted that along with society’s so-called beauty standards excluding her, they’ve also pushed out full-figured women.
“The most beautiful women I’ve seen in my life are my mom and my aunt Joyce. Those are the two most beautiful women that came into my life at an early age. And my aunt Joyce was over 300 pounds, but she had beautiful chocolate skin; the big earrings; she always wore the hippest clothes; she had the perfect afro,” the 53-year-old actress told ESSENCE.
She continued, “I know those women. Those women are in my life. Men love those women. Men want to have sex with those women and not just Black men. There are white men who want to have sex with those women. To me, in my world, she was beautiful.”
Widows, also starring Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya, is in theaters now.