Viola Davis’ ‘Finding Me’ reveals the struggle for success: review


Viola Davis has always been a great actress. She was great before she won an Oscar (for her supporting role in the 2016 film version of August Wilson’s Denzel Washington Fences), and even before his first nominations (for John Patrick Shanley in 2008 Doubt and Tate Taylor’s 2011 Ugly). In other words, she was great before legions of film critics and cinephiles finally started making the “water is wet” observation that black actresses weren’t getting movie roles, or praise, which they deserved – and if TV was ahead of the curve on that one, it wasn’t much. Even in the early 2000s, when she was just beginning to shape her career, Davis was so surprisingly, subtly multi-dimensional – like the dark and clairvoyant Dr. Gordon in Steven Soderbergh. Solaris, or as a long-absent mother in Washington Anthony Fisher, devastating in an almost wordless scene – that she took some kind of ownership of the movies around her, staking her own territory even if you couldn’t immediately match her face to her name. Now everyone agrees that Davis is awesome. It only took 20 years.

To read Davis’s elegantly written but sometimes heartbreaking memoir, To find me, is to understand how hard this spectacular performer has worked to build the career and life she has today – and to recognize that even for a performer as outrageously gifted and dedicated as Davis, the X ingredient known as the lucky name can never be underestimated. Davis opens the book with a revealing scene from her childhood, an upbringing marked by trauma that would take her years to process. At age 8 in the early 1970s, this “competitive but shy” little girl challenged a classmate at her school in Central Falls, RI, to a foot race. Her shoes were two sizes too small, so she took them off. And although she didn’t win the race – it was a tie – the boy was still humiliated. Bullying at the hands of his classmates, already constant, only intensified; The minute class ended, the boys at her school, almost all of them white, chased after her “like dogs chasing prey.” Of this bullying, Davis writes, “It was one more trauma I went through – my clothes, my hair, my hunger too – and my home life being the big daddy of them all. Attitude, anger and competitiveness were my only weapons.

Read more: Viola Davis: “I feel like a total rebel as an actor”

This is how Davis begins the story of who she was and who she would become. She describes her home life with simplicity, though she never downplays how awful it was to live there. His father, Dan, a heavy-drinking and often violently erupted former racehorse groomer, often beat Davis’ mother, Mae Alice, in front of Davis and her siblings, who would eventually number six in all. For much of her childhood, Davis and her family lived in a building she and her sisters called, with a chill, simply “128,” cramped quarters teeming with rats. The family rarely had enough to eat and often lacked heating. Davis also felt isolated in her community: although there were other black families in her town, they were Cape Verdean and identified as Portuguese. “They would kill you if you called them Black,” she wrote. And although she loved being in school, she rarely got the attention and affirmation she needed. Her anxiety caused problems with bedwetting, which meant she often went to school smelling urine; cruelly, even her teachers shunned her, lecturing her on hygiene even as she barely held her life together.

It may seem difficult to reconcile this angry, defensive kid — a kid with the odds against her — with the actor who would eventually go to Juilliard, where she railed against the school’s fixation on trying to improve the “Blackness” of colored performers, all in the service of the classic (read “white” tradition), and to win two Tony Awards. (She won her first in 2001, for Wilson’s King Headley IIand her second in 2010, for her performance as Rose Lee Maxson in Wilson’s Fences, the same role that would earn him an Oscar in the film version six years later).

Davis also won an Emmy in 2014, for her lead role as Annalize Keating in How to get away with murder, and the part of To find me in which she explains how hard she worked to endow this character with depth and dimension may be the best connection between this intelligent, headstrong and anxious child and the Davis we know today, an uncompromising performer who weaves son of undeniable truth in all she does. “I’m a dark-skinned woman,” Davis writes. “Culturally, there is a spoken and unspoken narrative rooted in Jim Crow. He tells us that dark-skinned women are just not desirable… In the past we have been used as chattels, fodder for inhumane experimentation, and this has evolved into invisibility. The way it is in entertainment is that we’re relegated to best friends, loud, loudmouthed, sassy lawyers and doctors.

Read more: Viola Davis is tired of Hollywood treating black women as sidekicks

The role of Annalize Keating – whom Davis describes as “a sexual, intelligent, vulnerable, possibly sociopathic, very shrewd, criminal lawyer” – both unleashed something in Davis and changed the landscape of what the black women characters. “I’ve never seen anyone on network TV who looked like me play a role like this.” And yet, suddenly, Davis was playing that role, chasing his own ingrained insecurities to do it.

Yes To find me is largely a chronicle of the hard work needed to overcome adversity, it’s also a wealth of meat-and-potatoes advice for all aspiring actors. Davis points out that “95% of actors are unemployed and less than 1% earn $50,000 or more a year.” (This is where luck comes in.) She also suggests that while all serious actors take pride in learning their craft, the true foundation of that craft is simply being a conscious human being. “An actor’s job is to be an observer of life. My job is not to study other actors, because it is not to study life. As much as I can, I study people.

Davis devotes a few paragraphs here and there to her health battles with alopecia and fibroids, but she seems to prefer to talk about joy, especially her dating and subsequent marriage to actor Julius Tennon, whom she met on the shooting of Steven Bochco. City of Angels in the early 2000s. Her prose is candid and supple and often delightful, as when describing one of the first acting coaches who really saw something in her as a teenager, a teacher in the Upward Bound program funded by the federal government. His name was Ron Stetson and he was, she writes, “the coolest, handsomest, most unique and dynamic individual I have ever met. He was driving a dented car that didn’t have a passenger side door. Really cool. He put a plastic sheet in his place so you don’t fall or get wet from the rain. Stetson and the other instructors in the program changed Davis’ life: “They blew a hole in my world and opened up a new space for me to occupy.”

Yet, it took the world a while to notice the extraordinary woman who occupied this space. In the early 2000s, at the time of Solaris and Anthony Fisher– in other words, when Davis was starting to get acclaim but wasn’t yet famous – a screenwriter I know pitched a story about her in New York Time. To hear my friend say it, the editor sighed and said that quite a few other writers had pitched the same story, but she still didn’t think Davis was “big” enough to warrant even a small profile. As a culture, we are now rushing to correct our past myopia, to spot and celebrate the talents of artists who are black, without first relegating them to this handy folder called “Black Artists”. Davis writes about her exasperation with how, even now, there are still so few leading roles for black women. But above all, it celebrates the act of finding oneself. This constant search is perhaps the key to what makes her a great performer – a gift she passes on to us with each performance, hard earned but given as freely as sunlight.

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