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Viola Davis Moved Dark-Skinned Women from the Margins to the Forefront

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When Viola Davis posted an image of herself as The Woman King for her forthcoming film, I gasped. When I saw she would play Michelle Obama in Showtime’s new series First Ladies, I said, “Yaaaaasssss.” Big screen or small screen, Ms. Davis gives me everything I need. The fact that she’s a brown-skinned Black woman to boot is an even bigger cherry on top, and it’s Viola Davis whom I credit with ringing in a new Golden Age of dark-skinned women being represented in movies and TV.

I grew up in the first golden age of television when it comes to seeing Black people on TV. And by golden age, I mean the ’90s. There was no shortage of shows with Black characters, Black families, and Black misfits whom I could turn to and find something relatable to my own life experience. From A Different World to Family Matters, The Wayans Brothers and Malcolm & Eddie, In Living Color, and even the short-lived Homeboys in Outer Space, I watched it all. In consuming these shows, I also consumed Black joy, Black love, and Black beauty.

In these shows, Black beauty had an array of presentations as wide, vast, and nuanced as the spectrum of color itself. That representation was also complex, precarious, and sometimes problematic. The tensions between light versus dark skin go back to the days of distinguishing house slaves from field slaves and paper bag tests, even used in admissions for some of the nation’s oldest and most storied HBCUs. They go back to the days of “passing” for a better life, and of baby doll tests where the Black baby doll is deemed by children to be inherently bad and incomprehensibly ugly. There is history and deep-seated hurt when it comes to the insidious ways Black women have had their looks weaponized against one another and in turn learned and perpetuated those same white supremacist attitudes that value light skin over dark. And in the ‘90s, those tensions made for storylines on television.

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Jill Marie Jones, Tracee Ellis Ross in ‘Girlfriends’ ©Paramount Television/Courtesy Everett Collection.

These tensions made for storylines on television. Art reflected real life back to viewers in the mammy episode on A Different World or the conflicts between Tracee Ellis Ross’s Joan and Jill Marie Jones’s Toni on Girlfriends. The fan-fueled feud between which actress played the best Aunt Viv (Janet Hubert or Daphne Maxwell Reid) on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has launched entire Twitter dissertations and think pieces across the world wide web. That the current Aunt Viv in the NBC reboot BelAir is a brown-skinned woman says something about the legacy Hubert left on the show even though she was only present for the first three seasons.

During this era of television, there was a diverse mix of Blackness to tackle both the issues and cultural conversations happening in the community. Then, with the 2006 merger of the WB and UPN to form The CW, the growth of viewership on FOX, the finales of shows like The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince, and competing rip-offs of Black shows with white characters, it seemed as if Black people disappeared from TV overnight.

In turn, my viewing habits were forced to change. I went from watching Black shows to watching anything with a Black character. The short-lived ABC legal drama The Deep End caught my attention because of Nicole Ari Parker. I watched all eight seasons of USA’s Suits because of Gina Torres’ Jessica Pearson and pre-princess Meghan Markle as Rachel Zane.

In 2012, the television landscape shifted again with the debut of Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal led by Kerry Washington. But as groundbreaking as Scandal was with its casting of a Black woman as the dramatic lead on a network show for the first time in forty years, it was 2014’s premiere of How to Get Away With Murder starring Viola Davis that had me at full attention.

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Viola Davis in ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ ©ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Viola Davis was dark brown Black like me. She struggled with the same ten to fifteen pounds like me. She capitulated to pressures to keep her hair straight to make herself more appealing like me. Yet she was the center of her own universe and brought others along for the ride like costar Aja Naomi King.

While dark-skinned Black women have been on TV for decades, they have rarely been centered the way Viola Davis was centered as legal savant Annalise Keating, Oprah notwithstanding. Viola Davis wasn’t the fat, funny, sidekick. She wasn’t asexual or mammified. She was a boss; bisexual, alcoholic, preternaturally ambitious, and Black.

She was everything I needed to see every Thursday night, and then, I began to see more. From Danielle Brooks and Uzo Aduba in Orange Is the New Black all the way to Shoniqua Shandai in Harlem and Denée Benton in The Gilded Age, dark brown-skinned Black women are now being seen and centered in their own stories as both supporting cast and stars. The expansion and evolution of storylines from the 90s-era that created entire arcs around colorism have been exponential. Today’s brown-skinned Black women characters have lives, love interests, families, jobs, and drama all their own without needing validation or even contextualization to their presence from their lighter-skinned peers.

What started with one or two shows and one or two actresses here and there has ballooned into a television landscape that looks more like the world. A world where degradations of skin color are celebrated instead of used as an arbitrary barometer to determine which doors are open to you, which rooms are available to you, or at what tables you may be seated. I give this credit to Viola Davis — but even she stands on the shoulders of the dark brown-skinned actresses in film, television, and Broadway before her (hello, Hattie McDaniel).

As Viola Davis continues to dominate the stage and screen, she is still the most visible dark-skinned Black woman repping for us dark-skinned Black women. Davis has come a long way away from her eight minutes with Meryl Streep in Doubt or her role as Abileen in The Help. She’s not relegated to only playing parts as a maid or a mom; she can be a scorned wife out for revenge (Widows), the head of a government agency out to defeat supernatural enemies (Suicide Squad), or the king of women warriors defending their nation (The Woman King). Her presence signifies belonging. She takes up space. She is not only welcome at the party, she’s the center of it. And that kind of gravity attracts others just like her, allowing them to be seen, valued, and validated as the necessary addition that’s been missing on our screens for far too long.

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Diana Ross

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