Viola Davis is ready for folks to focus on the pay gap between white women and women of color in the entertainment industry.
Davis is the cover star of the September issue of Variety, looking fly as usual. In the cover story, Davis spoke at length about her upcoming heist thriller (Widows), natural hair, her rough upbringing, and Hollywood’s tendency to get stuck in a very white rut.
Widows was originally written for a white woman in the lead role, but Variety notes that the film was retrofitted for Davis.
“This kind of role isn’t usually out there for a woman of color,” said Davis, who leads a motley crew of widows into a risky heist after the deaths of her husband and son. The gang is comprised of Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki, and Davis notes that their performances are—refreshingly—far from quaint; there’s a grit there, and it isn’t for men to slobber over. From Variety:
“People try to be too nice with women,” suggests Davis. “They keep them pretty. They keep them likable. They cater to male fantasies. They cater to the male gaze. This film didn’t do that.”
Naturally, any take on gender roles in Hollywood will find a way to pivot to the role of equal pay. But when the subject of gender parity came up, Davis preferred to emphasize the pay gap for non-white women in the entertainment industry at a time when this conversation has, in many ways, been relegated to hand-wringing over Claire Foy’s pay in The Crown.
Davis is all for that battle, but she says there’s a form of economic injustice that’s just as pernicious. Women of color don’t get paid less than just male actors — their salaries pale in comparison with those of white women.
“There are no percentages to show the difference,” says Davis. “It’s vast. Hispanic women, Asian women, black women, we don’t get paid what Caucasian women get paid. We just don’t. … We have the talent. It’s the opportunity that we’re lacking.”
And Davis is skeptical of any tangible change change unless more women of color moving up the ranks of the incredibly white Hollywood hierarchy.
Davis doesn’t think change is possible unless executive suites across Los Angeles become more inclusive. “We’re not even invited to the table,” she says. “I go to a lot of women’s events here in Hollywood, and they’re filled with female CEOs, producers and executives, but I’m one of maybe five or six people of color in the room.”
Despite the box office successes of films starring non-white actors—most recently Girls Trip, Black Panther, and Crazy Rich Asians to name a few—the industry is still slow to realize that movie goers will watch stories that aren’t about white people.
Variety cited a grim study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication that indicated that the number of speaking roles for women of color haven’t changed much in the last 10 years. In fact, it’s still a massive shit heap: “In 2017, 43 of the top 100 films lacked any black female characters, 65 were absent Asian or Asian-American female characters and 64 did not depict a single Latina character.”
Davis is helping defy expectations in an industry that largely ignores black and brown talent, but she can’t do this shit alone.