Viola Davis Is Redefining What it Means to Be a Black Woman on TV "Out of Necessity"
At the 71st Emmy Awards on September 22, Viola Davis appeared as a presenter and a nominee for her role in How To Get Away With Murder. The actress wore a black-and-white Alberta Ferretti gown she had paired with platform New Balance sneakers to TV’s biggest night, proving that she remains an innovator. Davis’ journey at the Emmys began in 2015 when she became the first woman of color to win in the lead actress category, for her role in HTGAWM, on which she’s also a producer — a dual, on-and-offscreen role she says came “out of necessity.”
“I’m fighting for something bigger than myself, and when you do that, it’s amazing how you find your voice more,” she told InStyle on the set of How to Get Away With Murder, which will soon begin airing its sixth and final season. With the character Annalise Keating, she hopes to tell stories through which “people can redefine what it means to be a dark-skinned Black woman, where we’re not just always holding the baby, wearing aprons, cussing someone out or being the best friend with wise words of wisdom. It’s that lack of knowledge in putting myths out there and continuing them and seeing how destructive they have been within our community,” she said.
Part of this break from the expected formula means that she’s exploring topics like murder, deceit, and guilt through her character on the Shonda Rhimes-produced thriller created by Peter Nowalk. Of course, she rounds out the character with a humanity that keeps viewers connected to the fictional thriller.
“After watching the first episode, my vision of Annalise totally changed,” Nowalk told InStyle. “I saw layers in Annalise I hadn't yet imagined — the wounded pride, the desperation to be heard, the vulnerable desire to be loved. Viola can play all of that without dialogue, so there's really no way to articulate just how much she contributed to this role.”
It was in Davis’ first conversation with Nowalk that she pitched the unforgettable scene where Annalise peels off her wig, lashes and makeup, revealing her natural side, and says the jaw-dropping line, “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”
“It was a beautiful and freeing moment, especially for me as a woman of color,” said Amirah Vann, who joined the series in Season 4 as Tegan Price. “You saw this woman in Annalise be at peace in her truth and still maintain a power and strength. And then you see this woman in Viola who had no problem in taking her wig off and showing her natural bareness.”
As the newly minted face of L'Oréal Paris, Davis is exploring that openness with beauty — and exploring and valuing different definitions of beauty — in more than one facet of her career.
“When there is an absence of being seen that’s the biggest statement, and when you are seen and you’re in the background, that’s another huge statement,” said Davis. “That invisibility cloak immediately dictates that we are being devalued.” Putting herself and her beauty front-and-center on HTGAWM, while starring in real-world beauty campaigns, surely contribute to that invisibility cloak coming off.
In subtle ways, Annalise’s standout outfits also describe her growth from season to season, thanks to the genius of Lyn Paolo, the show's costume designer.
“I like to think of Annalise putting little thought into what she’s wearing, but instead having an instinctive level of taste,” Paolo told InStyle.
You may have noticed last season that Annalise’s outfits had transitioned from dresses and pantsuits to less heels and more ankle boots and suede and leather leggings. This was an intentional decision as Davis, Paolo and Nowalk agreed that Annalise had entered a chapter of newfound strength after arguing her case in the Supreme Court.
While those watching may beg to differ, Nowalk still says, “I have no idea if anything's changed in the actual world [because of the show]. But what I do know is how proud I am to write characters who, regardless of their labels, get to be messy, imperfect, and often terrible. Annalise is pathologically selfish. Connor chopped up a body. Laurel's family acts out of greed. These are all characters with minority identities, and never once have I felt pressure to make them ‘good examples’ for their community. Sometimes they're bad examples, and that's the point.”
Although the show’s narrative is around trying to get away with murder through lies and deceit, its characters who blur the lines between good and bad make it relatable, and help it communicate a message to the viewing public.
“People have an idea of what it looks like to rise from the ashes,” said Davis, who also runs a production company, JuVee Production, with her husband Julius Tennon. “The biggest myth that keeps us in the ashes is thinking that after you do the work, you wake up one day and you have your happy ending. People are blinded by what they see in movies and television,” she said. “That's not realistic growth. Growth, sometimes, is just going from A to B with the realization that it’s enough to get you from one leap pad to the next.”
In this final killer season, Davis is looking for personal growth with Annalise that is equal to how far in the hole she is. “Baby steps are big steps” and that’s something every viewer can digest into their own walk of life.
How to Get Away With Murder returns to ABC on Thursday, Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET.