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Viola Davis speaks about mentorship, growing up in poverty and racism

Nikola Toledo, Lifestyle Editor, Puma Press

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Primetime Emmy Award winner, Viola Davis spoke to a crowd of over 1,000 people in Phoenix on Feb. 27 at the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. Davis is best known for portraying “Aibileen Clark” in 2011’s “The Help” movie, where she was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe. The Emmy Award Davis won is for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Davis also plays “Annalise Keating” in the TV series “How to get away with murder.”   

In her “Delivering Democracy” lecture, Davis highlighted her personal experiences as an African-American growing up in poverty, experiencing racism and achieving success in the film industry. When she appeared on stage, everyone in the church jumped to their feet cheering and clapping.

Davis recalls growing up poor and living in a condemned building. The apartment had no plumbing and huge rats. She shared a memory of hearing the horrible sounds of pigeons being killed by rats. Davis added that she remembers always being hungry and not knowing when the next meal was coming.   

Davis reflects on what her mentors taught her — to dream big, to teach herself everything she could, to master a skill, and that people simply liked her. “That is the beauty of living in America,” she said.

Davis believes that in any other country, she would have remained a child of poverty.

Davis advised those in the crowd to be mentors to someone. Davis says, “You can’t get through this life alone. A mentor helps you find your way.” She spoke about how teachers at Upward Bound, the educational system in Central Falls, Rhode Island saw something in her. They saw her passion, she said, and she referred to their mentorship as being “thrown a rope.”  

Davis says due to her speaking tour, she would not be at the Oscars. She did point out that her absence was not from the controversary surrounding the Oscars. Davis says if she were nominated, she would go. Davis joked that the Oscars is a long evening, and she can think of other things she would like to do with her time (not in a negative way).

Davis says,  “The Oscars is not the problem. The problem is the people that are in a position of power in Hollywood.”

Davis was specific with what people do not see about the acting profession. She says, “the people nominated for an Oscar represent .0007 percent of the profession. There are probably 500,000 to 600,000 actors in the Screen Actors Guild, so there is a deficit in general. And when you put out the roles for people of color, then there is a lot of scarcity. There are a lot of reasons for that. Yes, Hollywood is not churning out the scripts. They are not giving the green light to make the black movies.”

Davis adds, “There are no scripts out there. It’s not like there is a special room with a whole bunch of scripts and they (Hollywood) are like I’m just waiting for black actors.”  

To this day, Davis says she still deals with racism. “The worst thing about racism is that people put so many barriers in front of you, that limit you,” she said. “They limit your potential but that’s not the worst part. The worst part is when you start believing it.”

Davis says, “I am a person who is always trying to reach for significance. I feel like you always work for success, be the best actress, be the best, best, best and then you get there. You forgot the final step and that is significance. That’s what democracy means. It’s finding the significance of each and every human being.” She explained that people can be successful and be the best at their crafts and they may not have good hearts. To achieve success and reach significance is to be the best at your craft while remaining true to yourself and others.

Davis advised the crowd, “There is success and significance. Go for significance.”

Davis said that tries to the best of her ability to end racism, through her work as an actress, through her work as a philanthropist, through her work as a producer. Davis says, “I get what life is all about. A part of being seen as equal is guiding yourself. It is more than what you look like. My whole thing is you got to start. You do have to be the change you want to see.”  

Davis has a production company with her husband — JuVee Productions. The name is a mix of her husband’s name, Julius Tennon, and her name. JuVee Productions targets stories from an array of backgrounds, not the typical Hollywood atmosphere of stories.

Davis will team with playwright Tony Kushner on her next project, “Fences.” She will star in the production with Denzel Washington. Davis talked about working with Denzel Washington on Broadway and how great it is to be working with him again. Davis says, “’Fences’ has been out there for 35 years, has been put into so many hands and it is finally getting life.”

Davis’s lecture was sponsored by the Arizona State University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.   


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Viola Davis speaks about mentorship, growing up in poverty and racism