Viola Davis and Stacey Abrams on Oscar Season, Politics and Wielding Their Power as Black Women
Viola Davis and Stacey Abrams know how to harness their power.
These bold, towering figures may come from vastly different professional backgrounds, but the outspoken women share much in common, not the least of which is giving voice to pertinent issues in their respective fields and attaining success in their careers against all odds.
Their primary connection, however, lies within their core principles. They are both Black women who have worked their way from poverty to pop culture prominence and then used their spheres of influence to create opportunities and make space for other Black women to follow.https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.443.0_en.html#goog_1274194825Volume 0%
As the intersection between entertainment and politics continues to meld, their mutual success has landed Davis and Abrams smack in the middle of Hollywood’s film awards conversation. Davis, one of the industry’s most celebrated actors, is being lauded for her performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and is considered a lead contender in this year’s Oscar race; Abrams produced the award-winning documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” which was just shortlisted for an Academy Award, contending as a documentary feature.
Davis’ name has become synonymous with awards season, as evidenced by her mantelpiece, which boasts an Oscar, two Tonys, three Drama Desk Awards and an Emmy for her work on screen and stage. Her rousing remarks when accepting the supporting actress Oscar in 2017 for “Fences” underscore her unabashed honesty about the business she works in: “People ask me all the time, ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ And I say, ‘Exhume those bodies, exhume those stories — the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams come to fruition.’”
Regarding the awards season maelstrom, Davis says, “It’s a platform. It’s another microphone. It’s another opportunity to open my mouth and speak a really fundamental truth about Hollywood and this business and, really, America.”
Abrams is a game changer, credited with helping to turn her home state of Georgia blue in the 2020 presidential election, which was a major factor in Donald Trump losing the White House to Joe Biden, and earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Her “All In” documentary, which she produced with filmmakers Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, recounts Abrams’ own election story — losing the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp, with fewer than 55,000 votes standing between the candidates amid claims of extensive voter suppression. The film also traces the history of voting rights in America and the nefarious maneuvers that have been deployed to deprive people of that right.
As she navigates her freshman awards season with “All In,” Abrams says: “It’s an extraordinary thing to know that the intent of the film has been recognized. The goal was to provide Americans with the tools they needed to identify and mitigate voter suppression and that constant attack on their citizenship.”
Davis’ and Abrams’ respect for one another was on full display in an exclusive conversation for Variety’s cover story and video shoot. As political leader Abrams transitions from election season to awards season, Davis wholeheartedly welcomes her into the fold.
When asked what it means to have her name associated with Abrams’, Davis says, “It’s a reflection and a confirmation that I’m living my life on a higher level than what I do [as an actor].
“I’ve always wanted to lead a life of significance. I’ve always wanted to leave breadcrumbs — like my mentor, Miss Cicely Tyson, did for me — and leave the world a little shifted by my presence. Not everyone can be a Martin Luther King Jr., but they can be who they are and make a difference in the life of someone.
That’s what Stacey Abrams means to me. My God, she shifted the whole election; she shifted the whole state of Georgia.”
In any normal year, Abrams and Davis would be greeting each other on the awards circuit in a crowded ballroom, accepting accolades during an awards luncheon or a televised gala. Instead, because of COVID19 precautions, the pair are catching up over Zoom, reflecting on the year that’s past and what’s to come.
Stacey Abrams: I had the first occasion to get to know you — without you having any idea I existed — because I watched you do one of the most searing and captivating episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
You were this criminal mastermind who so deeply loved her children that you were willing to betray your oath. The way you just embodied this woman who was so deeply conflicted. When you’re watching a show — I love procedurals, but they become very rote — I remember watching that episode thinking, “My God, she is good.”
That was before “How to Get Away With Murder.” It was before the Academy Awards, Tony Awards and Emmy Awards. It was before the world understood what an extraordinary talent you are. I remember, because when you can take that kind of character in a 45-minute procedural and make it that indelible, you are incredibly talented.
Viola Davis: I loved that serial killer role for all the reasons you mentioned; it was a chance for me not to be warm and fuzzy.
The first time I met you was at a political fundraiser for Fair Fight. I was so nervous that I forgot all the things that I should have said. I thought, “I have to drive the point home of how important this election is. And I have to impress Stacey Abrams.” I forgot all of it because I’m very shy, introverted by nature. I sat in the corner, and then I listened to you speak. And I heard the voice of a visionary and a leader.
Abrams: Whatever it was that you planned to say, I don’t know, but you were extraordinary that day; when I got up there [onstage], I thought, “I’m gonna ask her to do my eulogy.” What is so important about how you enter spaces is that you bring such thoughtfulness to the issues that face our communities. You aren’t someone who is an actress or producer who happens to do activism. You embody this notion that we are responsible for the world we’re in.
Davis: I feel like we’re in a period where for me, I’ve had to harness my anger. I’ve almost had to compartmentalize it. I absolutely believe that this last year has driven home the point that we are in a war of ideology and ethos. We just are.
What was it like watching the inauguration, watching everything that you and a lot of Black women have fought for? Not just what it felt like, but to express how far we need to go and what it is that we need to do?
I had a conversation with someone last night. I said, “There needs to be a reconciliation of the past.” I’m not talking in the abstract; I’m talking about policies that have been put in place — everything from the war on drugs to Jim Crow to the Black Codes, to the privatization of prisons. We had a Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, that dictated 100 years of policies that have suppressed us. How do you reconcile that? What is your sense of pride in what happened with the last election?
Abrams: I grew up in Mississippi under a state flag that until this year was the Confederate battle flag of traitors who went to war to keep our people enslaved. I came of age in Georgia, where the state flag also included the Confederate emblem. I know what that means. I know that despite all the attempts to wrap that story in veneration and heritage, it is fundamentally a conversation about my humanity.
It is a conversation we continue to have 100 years after wars have been fought, and 50 years after laws have been finally eviscerated — at least on the books — yet we continue to grapple with questions of humanity. Who’s entitled to dignity and access? Who’s entitled to want and to dream and to have?
For me, the inauguration is a reminder that voting, that democracy, isn’t magic. There is nothing about democracy that’s magic. It is work. It is hard work.
But it’s also medicine. There is a disease of racism that is embedded in the veins of America. There is a disease of bigotry that winds its way throughout how we’ve made our rules and who has access — [plus] sexism, homophobia, this broader construct of xenophobia.
I want us to remember that America is this extraordinary ideal, but it’s also an attempt every day to be better, to acknowledge, to reconcile the whole of who we are. By ourselves, none of us are powerful enough to get it done. But together, we make progress.
The inauguration wasn’t about magic, and that suddenly everything’s going to get better. Winning these Senate seats wasn’t about “Yes, now we get to have everything we want.” It was one more injection, one more pill, one more opportunity for us to take our medicine and try to do better for our people.
And I think that one of the reasons you and your characters resonate with me so much is that you seem so intentional about how you are going to reconcile your space and how you’re going to enter this world.
When I learned about JuVee Prods. [which Davis formed in 2011 with husband Julius Tennon], about your decision to take the reins into your own hands, I see that as a continuation of what we saw on Inauguration Day — people who are so often discounted becoming their directors and producers, creating their own lives.
Davis: I took the reins out of necessity. There aren’t movies that are being done and developed with anyone like me in mind. I’m a 55-year-old dark-skinned woman in Hollywood. I’m still in the “maid,” the “urban mother crying over her dead son’s body in the middle of the road” category. I’m not seen as sexual. The most basic fundamentals of what makes a woman do not trickle down to me.
For me to get those roles and be seen in that way, I had to create and develop them myself. I had to find those emerging artists like myself who are on the periphery. There’s still resistance in exploring our full pathology — I always use the word “pathology,” because pathology is a study of tumors, what makes a tumor malignant or benign. What are the origins of it? A psychological pathology is [asking] “What makes a person tick?”
There’s still resistance to understanding what makes us tick. And that’s where art lives. It was my chance to not do that for myself; it was my chance to do that for other people of color.
I got “How to Get Away With Murder,” and that’s when my career shifted. And all I was, was exhausted. I sat next to a life strategist at a party. I said, “Why is it that so many people on the top seem miserable?” And he said, “Viola, because they thought that they hit it. That success was the top. But it’s not. It’s significance. It’s transcendence. It’s leaving a legacy.”
My head exploded, because that’s what it is: It’s leaving a legacy. Every time I portray a character, I want to honor that Black person that I’m portraying. By filtering and watering it down, it’s doing the same thing as the so-called oppressor is doing, which is [saying], “You’re not good enough for me” or “I don’t want to see you” or “You’ve got to water and filter yourself down enough so it’s not an indictment of me.”
Abrams: What have been your favorite projects so far?
Davis: “How to Get Away With Murder” was a big one. It was my chance to create a woman. With Black women, we still had been an extension of our history, of being seen as chattel, as being seen as so strong that we’re almost masculine, as not feeling any pain, as not being desired and not being embraced.
It was my chance to explore womanhood, explore the mess, and even explore the parts of ourselves that are sexually traumatized. What does it look like when we take off our wigs? Or when we put them back on? It was my chance to create a human being and to do so on my terms.
Seeing that you’re venturing into the world of Hollywood, what is the one idea about it that has blown your mind — or the one discovery, if you’ve had one?
Abrams: I’ve followed the industry for a very long time. I’ve always been fascinated by the arts. [Now] having been in a pitch meeting and having had a concept like “I’d like to do a documentary about voter suppression.” I didn’t think I could do it.
I think the thing that was stunning to me was the translation of thought into action, and how both fluid and unreal the process can be. I met Liz Garbus and her team, I described what I wanted, they described what they did, they introduced me to Lisa Cortés, and then there was a movie.
As a writer, I understand how things go from thought to paper. You meet this character you’ve created in your head, and you get to keep revisiting it. The dimensions that come with film, with the ability to say, “I want the story to be told,” and for the story to be so real, raw and complicated, is fascinating to me. It was also the ability for me to speak [my idea] to others, and to have them tell me what they saw and to see all of those pieces come together.
What has also been an amazing discovery is the deep humanity of the people I’ve met here — like you, Audra McDonald, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington, Bradley Whitford and so many others who’ve [had] the deep humanity and the willingness to help make things real — it’s reaffirming.
Davis: The one thing that has struck me with this whole political process are people who don’t vote. I was watching the news one day, watching it as Viola, the little girl growing up in poverty in Central Falls [Rhode Island]. There was something inside my brain that said, “I can understand why people don’t vote.”
You had boots on the ground. I want to know some of the stories that you heard from people who don’t vote. What’s the machine behind it?
Abrams: The image you crafted of yourself, just remembering being a young girl growing up in poverty. The work I do begins there.
I grew up in a working poor family of eight. We were in a world where my parents did all the things you’re told to do; they worked full time, they’d gone to college in the era of Jim Crow, and still racism and sexism stopped them from getting the things they were willing to work to get.
My parents were so intentional with us, saying, “No matter how little we have, there’s someone with less. Your job is to serve that person.” We were raised with the service ethic, but they also took us with them to vote. Because what they taught us is that the fact that they treat you wrong doesn’t mean you give them permission to do it again and again.
I always begin with a question of “How can I help?” If you start by chastising someone for not voting, you are ignoring the real, legitimate and authentic pain they feel. The conversation I had with an elderly man who had never voted in his life because he grew up in intergenerational poverty — his parents were sharecroppers — wasn’t “You should vote.” It was “What do you need?”
Sometimes we need to vote out of revenge: Your failure to do your job to serve me is cause enough for me to remove you from office. I think vengeance gets a bad rap. We see it as sort of evil. If you aren’t willing to do your job, you don’t deserve your job.
“All In” is about how this has happened primarily to people of color, to young people and poor people. When you have been removed from your God-given capacity to be heard, when your citizenship has been denuded by the feeble ministries of means, and this fear of not having enough power, I want you to be angry enough — not enraged, so you have no clear thought — to be angry enough to show up and say, “No more.”
It goes back to making sure that when you’re stirring people up, you don’t do it in a way that says, “If you vote, things will change.” It’s “If you don’t vote, you will be damned, because they will continue to hurt you. Why not just take a swing at maybe stopping the hurt? Maybe getting something good?”
I want to shift [the conversation], because one of the most extraordinary characters you’ve embodied came of age [during Plessy] and is so complicated because of this, and that is Ma Rainey. It’s not just the gender of Ma Rainey that stands out, but it is how effectively you embody all of those tensions of being a citizen who is Black and a woman in America. Can you talk about not just your time as Ma Rainey, but the fact that you’ve been so embedded in August Wilson’s stories of Blackness in America?
Davis: When there are stories of Blackness in America, they stay metaphoric, so that people can walk out of the movie theater and talk about all the intellectual ideas, but they don’t get to spend time with us, without humanity, to see what makes us tick. That’s why August lets us talk.
With Ma Rainey, one of the lines that stood out for me — because it has taken me a lifetime to get to this point: “Ma listens to her heart. Ma listens to the voice inside of her; that’s all that counts with Ma.” By the time you meet her in this piece, she will be rendered obscure. This is one woman who is called the “Godmother of the Blues,” and yet nobody knows her. She will be buried in obscurity.
It was interesting to play a woman who has that inside of her, but that other part that says, “You may not see me, but I see me.” It became a healing elixir for Viola. I’ve done the work on myself, but the journey as a darkskinned woman in America is very specific. That is something people still don’t talk about. It was a joy to play someone who was that emotionally free and Black. With Ma, she had the freedom of being absolutely who she was because she gave herself permission. I wanted to honor her. I want to honor all the Black people that I portray.
Every Black person that I portray, even if they didn’t make it in the history book, deserves this story to be told, fully realized. Even if they’re not likable, even if they’re so-called “not pretty” — and that’s a big one for me — even if they’re not heterosexual, even if they’re mad at God. It’s an honor to work with people whose entire vision is to further stories of people of color, people who share your vision. And here’s what I want to know: if you’re proud of yourself for all the things that you have done. Oftentimes it’s hard for us to feel that, as women of color, that sense of achievement.
Abrams: My partner in crime is [Fair Fight CEO] Lauren Groh-Wargo; I reference her because I always want to acknowledge the work done by
others. On the morning of Jan. 6 [when the Georgia Senate runoff election was called as a victory for Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock], I had to go to an appointment. We drove over to her house. I called ahead and [when] we saw each other, we started jumping up and down. I wanted to share that joy with her because I’m proud of what we did. I’m proud that we increased the power of Black people, Latinos, Asian American Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and white people who wanted to be in coalition.
So much of the work of the last decade, and certainly the work of the last two years, has been about proving that you could rely on our communities to create change. [People of color] aren’t an afterthought. We are a central theme. The reason I’m so intentional about acknowledging others is that I’ve watched people do good things and get lionized for it, and when they make a mistake, everything they built crumbles, because it wasn’t about the work, it was about the person.
So yes, I am proud. I’m always delighted when the things I want to do come to fruition. I am proud of the work I do, but I never want the most important work — the ensemble work — to be discredited. That’s the piece that drives me most.
Davis: What’s next? Now what, Stacey? I always say that, even with artists who win awards, or after you do that last job that got 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. What’s your next challenge, your next fight?
Abrams: The perennial fight that you have successfully battled is to give empathy and to make empathy real. My battle is to make power real. For us to believe that our communities deserve the power, that our people deserve power. That the marginalized and the disadvantaged — those who have been diminished by society in their minds — we have to know we are mighty in our power.
Styling, Abrams: Iman Ramadan; Styling, Davis: Elizabeth Stewart/The Wall Group; Makup, Davis: Sergio LopezRiver/Cloutier Remix; Hair, Davis: Jamika Wilson/ Epiphany Artist Group; Hair and Makeup, Abrams: Paulette Morgan; Manicure, Davis: Manicure: Christina Aviles/Star Touch Agency; Davis, seated with Abrams: Suit: Stella McCartney; Earrings: Larissa Moraes; Davis cover and single: Suit: St. John; Earrings: MISHO Designs; Shoes: Tods