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Viola Davis says a former director called her by his maid’s name

The Oscar winner says the slight is symptomatic of Hollywood’s approach to Black people's humanity.
Viola Davis attends the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival in southern France on, May 19, 2022.
Viola Davis at the Cannes Film Festival in southern France on Thursday.Joel C Ryan / Invision/AP

Viola Davis has an Oscar, an Emmy and a Golden Globe (among many other honors). She’s a veteran of film and TV who has been working steadily since the mid-1990s.

But that doesn’t mean she’s immune from the issues many Black actors face in Hollywood.

For example, Davis, 56, told Variety at the Cannes Film Festival during one of it “Women in Motion” conversations last week, a director called her by his maid’s name.

“I actually had a director who did that to me,” said Davis, the star of “First Lady.” “He said, ‘Louise!’ and I’d known him for 10 years and he called me ‘Louise’ and I found out that it’s because his maid’s name is Louise. ... I was maybe around 30 at the time, so it was a while ago. But what you have to realize is that those micro-aggressions happen all the time.”

Davis who won her Emmy in 2015 for “Murder,” said that as a dark-skinned Black woman, she’s a rarity in front-leaning roles on series.

“I know that when I left ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ I don’t see a lot of dark skin women in lead roles on TV. Not even in streaming services,” she told Variety. “That goes into ideology and ethos and mentality, and that’s speaking in the abstract. Why aren’t you hiring a dark skin woman when she walks in the room and you say she blows you away? Then create space and storytelling for her so when she thrives she’s not thriving despite of her circumstances, she’s thriving because of the circumstances.”

“Murder” was created by Shonda Rhimes, who is also Black. Davis is trying to provide more roles for women like her through her company, JuVee Productions (she founded it with her husband, Julius Tennon). One such coming production is the historical epic “The Woman King,” which Davis will co-star in.

Davis has spoken out on the topic before, telling Vanity Fair in 2020: “Not a lot of narratives are also invested in [Black] humanity. They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but ... it’s catering to the white audience.”

Coming up in Hollywood, she told Variety, she was often told she wasn’t “pretty enough.”

“It breaks my heart, and it makes me angry,” she said, because the reasoning is obvious to her. “Let’s be honest. If I had my same features and I were five shades lighter, it would just be a little bit different. And if I had blonde hair, blue eyes and even a wide nose, it would be even a little bit different than what it is now. We could talk about colorism, we could talk about race. It pisses me off, and it has broken my heart — on a number of projects, which I won’t name.”

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CORRECTION (May 24, 2022, 2 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Viola Davis spoke to Variety at the Cannes Film Festival. It was last week, not this week.