Viola Davis Seemingly Replies to Being Called "Less Beautiful" Than Halle Berry and Kerry Washington

"Like air, I'll rise!!!" the How to Get Away With Murder star tweets

By Zach Johnson Sep 22, 2014 1:25 PMTags
Viola Davis, TCAMark Davis/Getty Images

In a widely panned review of How to Get Away With Murder, the new ABC series which stars Viola Davis as a criminal defense lawyer and law professor, The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley tried to take down EP Shonda Rhimes. In the process, the TV critic also offended Davis by comparing her to lighter-skinned African American stars.

"The actress doesn't look at all like the typical star of a network drama," Stanley wrote in her review, which spawned several think pieces. "Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than [Kerry Washington], or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series Extant." Davis seemingly replied via Twitter, writing, "You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I'll rise!!!"

The quote comes from the late Maya Angelou's Still I Rise, published in 1978.

Davis didn't link to the article, but it's believed she was responding to Stanley's story.

In addition to Washington, Scandal stars Bellamy Young, Josh Malina and Joe Morton expressed their outrage over the article via Twitter. Grey's Anatomy actress Ellen Pompeo, plus TV stars Yvette Nicole Brown, Lena Dunham and Octavia Spencer, also spoke out against Stanley's poorly received review via their social media accounts.

Stanley stood by her controversial critique, telling BuzzFeed News, "The whole point of the to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype." Whatever her intent, the message was lost in translation.

Davis has long addressed the issues facing black actresses in Hollywood. "There just aren't a lot of roles for—I mean, I'm a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn't look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time," she said during Newsweek's Oscar roundtable in 2012. "You know there's not a lot of leading roles." The Help star added, "I have an absolute understanding and awareness of the image I project, and there's just not a lot of roles for women who look like me." The next year, Davis spoke to Oprah Winfrey about how the issue has created competitiveness among her peers.

"Here's the thing: We're in crisis mode as black actresses. Not only in the sheer number of roles that are offered and that are out there, but in the quality of roles...When you only have two or three categories for black actresses, therein lies [the problem] because you want to work," she said on Oprah's Next Chapter. "So, it's a natural instinct if you throw a piece of cheese in a room full or rats that they're going to claw at each other. It's natural."

When Davis was profiled by The New York Times on Sept. 12, she revealed that she hopes to become an inspiration for young girls who look like her. "A 25-year-old white actress who is training at Yale or Juilliard or SUNY Purchase or N.Y.U. today can look at a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles," she said. "You can't say that for a lot of young black girls. That's why I'm doing what I'm doing."

"I have been given a lot of roles that are downtrodden, mammy-ish," Davis continued. "A lot of lawyers or doctors who have names but absolutely no lives. You're going to get your three or four scenes, you're not going to be able to show what you can do. You're going to get your little bitty paycheck, and then you're going to be hungry for your next role, which is going to be absolutely the same. That's the truth."

Davis said the success of How to Get Away With Murder is dependent upon whether viewers are willing to accept "a woman of color, of a certain age and a certain hue." The Tony winner added, "I don't see anyone on TV like me in a role like this. And you can't even mention Halle Berry or Kerry Washington."

Apparently Stanley didn't get the memo.