With the record number of 11 acting Emmy nominations for black actors this year, the industry consensus might appear to be that African Americans are making a breakthrough. But for Viola Davis, black actresses are still relegated to marginalized roles with the bulk of offers that have come her way prior to The Help and her leading role on ABC’s upcoming drama series How to Get Away With Murder being “downtrodden, mammy-ish.”
Davis’ opinions are featured in a profile about her in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine.
“When I get the fried chicken special of the day, I have to dig into it like it’s filet mignon,” says Davis about the roles she’s been offered, “A lot of lawyers or doctors who have names but absolutely no lives. You’re going to get three or four scenes, you’re not going to be able to show what you can do. You’re going to get your little bitty paycheck, and then you’re going to be hungry for your next role, which is going to be absolutely the same.”
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Davis goes on to say that her turn as enigmatic defense attorney Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder, executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Peter Nowalk, is an anomaly for a darker-skin black actress like herself: It’s a complicated role versus the smaller parts she has played.
Despite landing the TV series lead, Davis explains “I don’t see anyone on TV like me in a role like this. And you can’t even mention Halle Berry or Kerry Washington,” referring to two African-American stars with lighter skin. Whether the show is a hit or not depends on viewers’ acceptance of “a woman of color, of a certain age and a certain hue,” adds Davis.
While Davis concurs that Caucasian women over 40 also have a hard time landing decent parts, she believes that there’s “a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles” which young white actresses can look up to. “You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls,” says Davis, “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
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