There is an unwavering gravitas to the way Viola Davis speaks that commands your attention right out of the gate. Her eye contact, tone and delivery are convincingly forceful even when she’s reciting the words of an ad for L’Oréal Paris, for which she has been a spokesperson since 2019. When she says “You’re worth it,” it feels like the actress is looking right into your soul, striking down all your self-doubts and affirming your value. It’s disarming how easily she’s able to infuse this decades-old slogan with such weight. Sure, she’s an Oscar winner, but it’s not just her acting skills that make it so resonant; she has spent most of her life working on believing she’s worth it herself. Though she grew up in poverty and often went hungry, Davis was able to overcome her disadvantages, earning scholarships to study theatre. Yet it was a slow burn to fame; her film career didn’t take off until she did a seven-minute scene opposite Meryl Streep in 2008’s Doubt, which earned her her first Oscar nomination. “I had probably been out there for 20 years before that,” she says, “but it was like I’d just arrived and it ‘birthed me’ into being known.”
It was her role in 2011’s The Help that pushed Davis even further into the spotlight, and she took that opportunity to make a statement about Black women’s hair. On the red carpet for yet another Oscar nomination, she decided to forgo wearing a wig, something she’d always done for such events. “I felt like I was liberated from an ideal—an ethos that has long been dictated to women of colour,” she says of the experience. “I’d carried that baggage with me my whole life. It had never occurred to me that I could literally put the bags down.” She also wore her natural hair in 2018’s Widows at the suggestion of director Steve McQueen. “He said: ‘Why not, Viola? This woman exists. I see her at the airport; I see her on the streets of Paris. So why doesn’t she exist in American cinema?’” she says. “It’s very important to emphasize that I was a 51-year-old dark- skinned American woman doing that. There was power in that.”
It was a long road to reach that point, though. Davis says that when she was younger, she wanted to erase everything about her appearance—“my weight, my lips, my nose”—and she straightened her hair to the point of destroying it. “It’s about erasure and invisibility, and that has its birthplace in systemic racism,” she says. “The darker you were, the uglier you were. And we carry that mentality. We carry it in even unforeseen ways.” By the time she reached that Oscars red carpet, she was exhausted. “When I took the wig off, I found the balance,” she says. “And I have to tell you, I felt really good. I was surprised by how good I felt.”
Now 55, Davis is in a place where she is not only comfortable in her skin but also appreciative of so much more than the external. The true gifts of getting older aren’t about remaining wrinkle-free or looking great in a bathing suit. “If you think that, you’ve missed a lesson,” she says. “There is no price tag that you can put on the courage to speak your mind, to be who you’re going to be.” And, believes Davis, even if you achieve every goal you set for yourself, you can still be left feeling unsatisfied and empty. “That’s because we forget about the final step, which is significance,” she says. “It’s transcendence. It’s legacy. It’s living a life of purpose.”
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