LOS ANGELES — Actress and producer Viola Davis gave a rousing speech about leadership and authenticity to a well-heeled crowd of Hollywood power players Wednesday morning at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast.
Davis, who was being honored with the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, said that she doesn’t always come to mind when she thinks of the idea of leadership — Martin Luther King, Jr. does — but that she is trying through her production company to embrace women of color as they really are.
“There is no limit to how we see narratives with people of color,” Davis said to a rapt crowd that included Mandy Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Awkwafina, Rita Wilson, “Roma” breakout Yalitza Aparicio and Kesha. “There is only so much I am going to cow-tow to this business.”
She said she and her husband Julius Tennon started JuVee Productions because she was tired of celebrating movies that didn’t have “me in it.”
“I don’t mean me Viola,” Davis said. “I mean me as a black woman.”
She urged those in power in Hollywood to show more authentic black female characters. “My main message is ‘stop taming us,’ she said. “Everything that we are inside is what makes art in this world rich … There is something to be said about being wild. Steve McQueen is wild. Barry Jenkins. Ryan Coogler … These people who just dare. Who say you cannot silence me.”
Even when there are black characters, she said, they’re reduced to being maternal, to being the savior, to being denied sexuality, to being there to, “Make that white character feel better.”
“What is in my heart is I cannot lead with bulls–t,” she said. “I cannot lead with lying. I cannot lead with the lying about what the road is out there.”
Her company recently closed a first look feature production deal with Amazon Studios, where they will produce a film about pioneering politician Shirley Chisholm. Davis will star as the New York congresswoman.
Davis was in good company at the breakfast event, where comedian Hannah Gadsby chided “good men talking about bad men” and Monica Lewinsky talked about her “mistake” and learning how to survive and grow from it.
“We have each made a mistake in our career that has come with consequences. And probably everyone in this room can agree, that among all of us here today, when it comes to the worst mistake or mistake with the worst consequences, I definitely win, hands down,” Lewinsky said. “Get comfortable with the fact that at some point you will make a mistake in your career…And know, from the deepest part of you, that you can move on from it, you can grow from it, and you can survive it.”
One person who owned up to a mistake was Lena Dunham, who came on stage with the mother of a woman who accused a “Girls” writer of sexual assault last November. Dunham at the time came out in support of the writer, who was her friend, and questioned the account of Aurora Perrineau. Since then Dunham has become friends with Aurora and her mother Brittany Perrineau.
“I denied her experience publicly. That will always be my greatest regret,” Dunham said. “But with Brittany and Aurora’s love, forgiveness and bravery it has become my greatest moment of evolution and education…I learned to listen.”
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