Viola Davis has been on everyone’s lips these days – and it couldn’t be happening to a more deserving person. A fiercely talented thespian (winner of 2 Tony Awards and a 3-time nominee), an extraordinary actor (winner & nominee of so many awards, including 2 Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, 3 Golden Globe Nominations, 2 Academy Award nominations, among several others), and a great role model, Viola Davis’ journey is one that I find incredibly inspiring for so many reasons.
Growing up extremely poor in Rhode Island, Davis was privy to desperate pangs of hunger – a cause that she is currently working hard to tackle, through the Hunger Is initiative. Her family was so poor that they lived in a building so rat-infested that they had to wear thick scarves around their necks at night to keep from getting bitten. To compound things, they were the only African-American family in their town, which led to lots of racism and the experience of racial epithets. Quite a story, huh?
Today, she is one of the most talked-about actresses in television, has been very happily married to actor-producer, Julius Tennon for 12 years, and is a proud mama of 4 year old daughter, Genesis, who the couple adopted in 2011.
Looking at the amazingly beautiful and successful person she is today, it’s hard to imagine that this was her reality. Everyone has a story.
Here are some of the reasons Viola Davis really inspires me.
Have you seen this woman’s SKIN? Viola has some of the most deliciously luminous skin I have ever seen. Always shining like a perfectly polished diamond, I really find her skin to be one of her most beautiful features.
At 49 (she turns 50 in August), Viola strikes me as a woman who has arrived at a place of acceptance in and love for her skin. She carries herself like someone who owns her features and has finally arrived at a place, where she looks in the mirror and is happy with what she sees. That is something that so many women – of all hues, shapes, and sizes – struggle with.
Viola has been very open about discussing the journey it has been to owning her beauty. From internalizing racist adjectives from white children from her childhood about being “ugly” to internalizing her mother’s own battle with self-esteem, Davis never saw herself as truly beautiful. To worsen things, when she was 28, she woke up one day to bald patches on her head: her hair was falling out!!! She soon realized that she had alopecia areata – a condition that causes hair to fall out in round patches – and felt even less beautiful. She quickly embraced wigs as her best friends, her crutches, and was never seen without them, even while taking a bath!
Thanks to her incredible husband, Julius, who encouraged her to embrace the totality of her natural self, she decided to do away with the wigs and accept her natural hair. This led to her oft-talked about appearance at the 2012 Academy Awards, sans wig, with her beautifully coiled natural hair all aglow. By stepping forward into herself, she has encouraged so many women of African descent to do the same. You can often find her now, doing interviews and appearances in all her natural glory.
Despite being termed “less classically beautiful” by a controversial New York Times article by writer, Alessandra Stanley, Viola had the courage to do something few actresses in recent memory had done: she sat before the world and took off her wig and every. single. trace. of. make up. in a How to Get Away with Murder scene that will be forever etched in my memory (and that of millions of others). She sat before the world naked, bare, and confident. Social media was abuzz, and Black women everywhere rejoiced.
To stare down people who had thought her less than attractive or older in a world of such superficiality is what I call “the ultimate beauty with courage”. For teaching us all how to throw caution to the wind, realize that our validations do not come from others, and stand in the power of our own beauty, I salute Viola Davis.
Viola Davis is an embodiment of the saying, “Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.” A formidable actress in every single role, Viola had still been long typecast – playing roles of people relegated to the background or with incredibly one-dimensional stories. Hailed as a star actress by such Hollywood heavy hitters as Denzel Washington, Davis still never received the recognition and quality roles she deserved. In fact, Denzel (who was her co-star & husband in the stage play, Fences) recommended that his daughter, who is also making her way as an actor, use Viola Davis as her blueprint, because every performance of hers is a tour de force.
In spite of the lack of meaty roles she has been offered, Viola has sunk her teeth into each one, delivering performances that have been nothing short of unforgettable. So unforgettable, in fact, that her 11-minute single-scene performance in the 2009 movie, Doubt, which starred Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Let that sink in: 11 minutes on-screen ONLY, earned her an Academy Award nomination. If that isn’t excellence, I don’t know what is. Really!
Because she has been diligent in her work and committed to being excellent in every role – whether major or minor – she is finally getting the opportunities she deserves. In 2014, she was cast as the complicated and no-nonsense Annalise Keating in the Shonda Rhimes-backed ABC runaway hit, How to Get Away with Murder. She is bringing excellence to every single scene!
She inspires me to always do my best work, regardless of how small or unrecognized it may be, so that when the huge opportunities arrive, excellence is already my habit!
Viola Davis is one of those people who, in spite of the challenges and the odds, focuses on what she wants and works hard towards it. She ignores the bumps on the road and focuses on the destination, instead.
“In college, Viola recalls participating in one acting class full of bright-eyed hopefuls. Her teacher was determined to knock some sense into them. He told everyone who wanted to be an actor to raise his or her hand. Then he bombarded the students with the hard facts of an actor’s life: scarcity of work, financial hardships, cutthroat competition, cattle calls, no health insurance, no sick pay, bad breaks, bad agents, bad roles—you name it. One by one, the hands shot down. At the end of his rant, only Viola Davis still held her hand up high.”
In 2006, Viola lost her father to pancreatic cancer; she states that it was a truly excruciating experience that changed everything in her life, helping her adjust her lenses and begin to focus on the things that matter the most – God, family, and love. Here’s what WebMD quoted her as saying,
“If you knew you had only five minutes left, you learn what’s important. It was like that when my dad passed. Anything you thought was important fades away. Anything that angered you or destroyed you is forgotten, and the only thing that is left is pure, pure love. Because at the end of the day, nothing else matters.”
“I’m living my life with purpose, and I think when you do that[,] things fall in line, and they fall in line in the exact order they should,” she says. “I now understand the importance of love. And for me, the most important things are my husband and my daughter. Because they make me feel needed. They make me feel like the space I’m taking up on this earth is important. That I’m important.”
On learning to embrace fear, Viola had this to say to Vulture: (You should definitely read the full article. There’s so much to glean from.)
“Nobody tells you about failure,” Davis argues. “People always talk about winning, vision boards, getting what you want. People also don’t talk about fear. It’s always keeping fear at bay. Squelching it. Throwing it away. I’ve embraced fear and failure as a part of my success. I understand that it’s part of the grand continuum of life. I’ve been through it all. Breakups, heartache, and I’ve lost a parent already. So now I get it at this age, I get that that is it. That life literally is what you make it.”
In what is undoubtedly one of my favorite quotes ever, and one that I actually plan to pass on to my children (with a tweak or two), Viola reminds her daughter, Genesis, everyday of the 2 most important parts of herself: her head & her heart.
“I tell my daughter every morning, ‘Now, what are the two most important parts of you?'” Davis began. “She says, ‘My head and my heart.’ Because that’s what I’ve learned in the foxhole: What gets you through life is strength of character and strength of spirit and love.”