To me, for actors of colors working in Hollywood, auteurship is necessary. I think about Oscar Isaac, who had to radically change the script of Drive when he saw how racist the plot was against the character he was meant to embody. This is an example of a vital intervention in the creative process by an actor imposing his vision. In a way, they fill the gaps, “repair” an imagination that has been injured by centuries of racism. This is why criticizing actors’ choices of portraying stereotypes can be presumptuous and dismissive. Actors know best the system in which they must work. Black actors can have agency and margin to resist, and the way they do it is by doing what they know best — acting. We should pay attention as it is also our job as critical, engaged spectators to assess the strategies Black actors employ to escape Hollywood’s deadly, stifling racist & anti-Black imaginary. We should look at their performances not just as the product of Hollywood’s deadly imagination but also as the product of their own resistance, imagination and creativity…
If I were to write a book on Viola Davis’s auteurship now maybe it would be just a few pages long. I would focus on one scene which to me announced emergence of an actress: the wig scene in How To Get Away With Murder.The documentary aspect of that scene is what makes it significant. The camera, usually so intolerant and fearful, had suddenly no other choice but to document what it has avoided documenting for a long time. Here is Viola Davis’ face in all its truth, raw and vulnerable. Viola Davis is acutely aware of what her body represents in the collective imaginary so there is something audacious, bold and menacing about her exposing/showing herself like that. The scene exemplifies what Viola Davis has been doing ever since she walked the red carpet with her natural hair at the 84th Academy Awards. She’s been imposing herself, unveiling what is her main instrument as an actress: her body. When she removed that wig, her eyelashes and the rest of her makeup, unveiling her face and her natural hair, she wasn’t just humanizing the character of Annalise Keating or trying to root this character in the real, she was also forcing us to look at her, her deep dark skin, her nose, her mouth and her hair.
Viola Davis is not going anywhere. As spectators, our responsibility is to start training our gaze to look at her in a way that enables her to explore her creativity and express herself uncensored. In a way that is, if not loving, liberating.
Read more | “Anatomy of a Black Actress: Viola Davis” | Fanta Sylla | The Toast