Viola Davis knows why executives and casting agents in the upper echelons of Hollywood still refrain from giving projects about people of color the same attention as those toplined by non-POC: “Fear.”
Davis and her husband Julius Tennon spoke about the importance of taking a firm stance about fostering inclusive content with those at the top during their keynote presentation at Variety’s Inclusion Summit.
The “Widows” actress echoed the sentiments of many participants throughout the day, which was that the “people in power” are the ones who need to make the change.
“They’re not being asked those hard-hitting questions,” Davis said.
Tennon advised people of color to “just ask” for what they want to see happen during meetings.
“The great Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ My momma always told me if you don’t ask you don’t get, so guess what, if you’re in deals with companies you just have to ask. It’s about the project and about doing something big, it’s called development for a reason, things aren’t sussed out all the way,” Tennon said.
Davis explained how she doesn’t believe inclusion riders are an entirely adequate solution to the diversity problem in the industry.
“I do not want to be a part of any piece of paper that has to force people to see me,” Davis said.
Another problem she identified was the reliance on precedents in Hollywood’s history for diversity, and using their lack to “dictate our storytelling in the present.”
“If you look to the past and look at storytelling where there’s a huge deficit in terms of our voice and our presence, that’s not a good place to start,” she said. “What we have to fight for, and this is what I’m proud about with JuVee, is autonomy in storytelling and production and all of it. Don’t just tell me that the only way Viola can exist in the story is if a white person is leading the charge and I’m in the background.”
Davis revealed that her husband often has to play the role of peacemaker at their production company.
“He keeps me from going crazy, I’m the one who’s like, ‘kiss my ass,'” Davis said to great laughter in the room.
The duo also discussed the next project up on JuVee’s slate: “Emanuel,” a documentary about the Charleston church tragedy where nine black parishioners lost their lives.
Tennon said that the doc was a natural fit with the company given Davis’ close ties with South Carolina and the stories that JuVee is looking to shed light on.
“One of the most important things is that after it happened, I would mention it to people and I would say isn’t it horrible and no one knew anything about it,” Davis said. “I see that as how we see race, we sweep it under the rug, it’s our dirty little secret. Like Brené Brown says, it’s easier to cause the pain than to feel the pain…There is too much that’s been done to erase history, at the end of the day we are our history.”