Viola Davis has always been a great actress. She was great before she won an Oscar (for her supporting role in Denzel Washington’s 2016 film version of August Wilson’s Fences), and even before her earlier nominations (for John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 Doubt and Tate Taylor’s 2011 The Help). In other words, she was great before legions of film critics and moviegoers finally began making the “water is wet” observation that Black actresses weren’t getting the film roles, or the acclaim, they deserved—and if television was ahead of the curve on that one, it wasn’t by much. Even in the early 2000s, as she was just beginning to shape her career, Davis was so astonishingly, subtly multidimensional—as the somber, clear-eyed Dr. Gordon in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, or as a long-absent mother in Washington’s Antwone Fisher, devastating in a nearly wordless scene—that she took a kind of ownership of the films around her, staking her own territory even if you couldn’t immediately match her face to her name. Now everyone concedes Davis is great. It only took 20 years.
To read Davis’ elegantly written but sometimes harrowing memoir, Finding Me, is to understand just how hard this spectacular performer has worked to build the career and life she has today—and to acknowledge that even for a performer as outrageously gifted and dedicated as Davis is, the ingredient X known as luck can never be underestimated. Davis opens the book with a telling scene from her childhood, an upbringing marked by trauma that would take years for her to process. At age 8, in the early 1970s, this “competitive but shy” little girl challenged a classmate at her school in Central Falls, R.I., to a footrace. Her shoes were two sizes too small, so she removed them. And though she didn’t win the race—it was a tie—the boy was still humiliated. The bullying at the hands of her schoolmates, already a constant, only intensified; the minute classes ended, the boys at her school, nearly all of them white, would chase her “like dogs hunting prey.” Of that bullying, Davis writes, “This was one more piece of trauma I was experiencing—my clothes, my hair, my hunger, too—and my home life being the big daddy of them all. The attitude, anger and competitiveness were my only weapons.”
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This is how Davis begins the story of who she was, and who she would become. She describes her home life matter-of-factly, though she never downplays how horrifying it was to live through it. Her father, Dan, a onetime racetrack horse groomer who drank heavily and often went on violent rampages, 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 came to refer to, with a shiver, as simply “128,” cramped quarters crawling with rats. The family rarely had enough to eat, and often went without heat. Davis felt isolated in her community, too: though there were other Black families in her town, they were Cape Verdeans and self-identified as Portuguese. “They would kill you if you called them Black,” she writes. And though she loved being at school, she rarely got the attention and affirmation she craved. Her anxiety caused bedwetting problems, which meant she often went to school smelling of urine; cruelly, even her teachers shunned her, lecturing her about hygiene even as she was barely holding her life together.
It might seem hard to square that angry, defensive child—a kid with all the odds stacked against her—with the actor who would eventually go on to study at Juilliard, where she railed against the school’s fixation on trying to ameliorate the “Blackness” of performers of color, all in the service of the classical (read “white” tradition), and to win two Tony awards. (She won her first in 2001, for Wilson’s King Headley II, and her second in 2010, for her performance as Rose Lee Maxson in Wilson’s Fences, the same role that would earn her an Oscar in the film version six years later).
Davis also won an Emmy in 2014, for her starring role as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder, and the section of Finding Me in which she explains how hard she worked to vest that character with depth and dimension may be the best link between that smart, stubborn, anxious child and the Davis we know today, an uncompromising performer who weaves threads of undeniable truth into everything she does. “I am a dark-skinned woman,” Davis writes. “Culturally, there is a spoken and unspoken narrative rooted in Jim Crow. It tells us that dark-skinned women are simply not desirable… In the past we’ve been used as chattel, fodder for inhumane experimentation, and it has evolved into invisibility. How it plays out in entertainment is that we are relegated to best friends, to strong, loudmouth, sassy lawyers, and doctors.”
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The role of Annalise Keating—whom Davis describes “as a sexual, smart, vulnerable, possibly sociopathic, highly astute, criminal defense attorney”—both freed something in Davis and changed the landscape of what Black women characters could be. “I never saw anyone on network TV who looked like me playing a role like this.” And yet suddenly, Davis was playing that role, kicking away her own ingrained insecurities to do so.
If Finding Me is largely a chronicle of the hard work required to overcome adversity, it’s also a wealth of meat-and-potatoes advice for all aspiring actors. Davis points out that “95% of actors do not work and less than 1% make $50,000 or more a year.” (This is where luck comes in.) She also suggests that while all serious actors pride themselves on learning their craft, the true underpinning of that craft is just being a mindful human being. “An actor’s work is to be an observer of life. My job is not to study other actors, because that is not studying life. As much as I can, I study people.”
Davis devotes a few paragraphs here and there to her health battles with alopecia and fibroid tumors, but she seems to prefer to talk about joy—particularly her courtship with and subsequent marriage to fellow actor Julius Tennon, whom she met on the set of Steven Bochco’s City of Angels in the early 2000s. Her prose is forthright and supple and often delightful, as when she describes one of the first acting coaches who really saw something in her as a teenager, a teacher in the federally funded Upward Bound program. His name was Ron Stetson and he was, she writes, “the coolest, most handsome, unique, dynamic individual I had ever met. He drove a beat-up car that had no door on the passenger side. Way cool. He put a sheet of plastic in its place so you wouldn’t fall out 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 that I could occupy.”
Still, it took a while for the world to notice the extraordinary woman occupying that space. In the early 2000s, around the time of Solaris and Antwone Fisher—in other words, as Davis was starting to garner acclaim but wasn’t yet famous—a film writer I know pitched a story on her to the New York Times. To hear my friend tell it, the editor sighed and said that quite a few other writers had pitched the same story, but that she didn’t yet feel Davis was “big” enough to warrant even a small profile. As a culture, we’re now racing to correct our past shortsightedness, to spot and celebrate the talents of performers who are Black, without first relegating them to that convenient folder labeled “Black performers.” Davis writes of her exasperation at how, even now, there are still so few leading roles for Black women. But mostly, she celebrates the act of finding herself. That constant seeking is perhaps the key to what makes her a great performer—a gift she passes along to us with every performance, hard-earned but given away as freely as sunlight.