On the {Sexual} Politics of Viola Davis’s Natural Hair at the Oscars

It wasn’t until my homie Gisele, a Black woman and working actress pointed out to me that Viola Davis graduated from Julliard in the late 80’s, that my growing obsession with Davis began to make sense.

In Davis, I saw myself.

I saw the struggles of so many Black women who try to remain whole in the face of economic, racial, sexual and financial circumstances that threaten to undermine them, in a mainstream culture that reads them by and large as maids, hypersexual video vixens, or as invisible.

A couple of weeks before the Oscars I watched the Tavis interview with her and read two articles at Shadow and Act titled “It’s a Difficult Time to be a Black Filmmaker with an Imagination” by Tanya Steele and “A Young Viola Davis Thought Experiment” by Charles Hudson. This material helped me to flesh out my ideas around Davis.

I wanted to know, what Davis’s process for deciding whether or not to take the role?Β  When I learned from the Tavis interview that she thought about it for three months, that it kept her up at night, she had me.

In the bookToms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks Donald Bogle studies the history of representations of African Americans in film. Bogle contends that all of these stereotypes are rooted in entertaining to stress “Negro inferiority”. Which leads me to ask, what is the political purpose of seeing “Negros” as inferior?

You see, I believe that one of the most interesting intersections to explore is the intersection between race and cultural productions because they can teach us both about the insidious and peculiar history of race and gender. This is important because I believe that understanding history can possibly lead us to a different, equitable and just future.

As many of you know I enjoy writing about films more than I writing about rap music these days, largely because the financial and racial politics of filmmaking remains highly undertheorized in pop culture blog spaces.

Which brings me to Ms. Davis and erotic capital.

Viola Davis and Erotic Capital

I take the idea of erotic capital from Siobahn Brooks. She has done some interesting work on class and race in strip clubs in New York and Oakland.

Erotic capital is made up of the things that are used to evaluate a womans sexual desirability in the public marketplace. So for Black women, I see erotic capital as hair texture, hair length, skin color, skin hue, body shape, nose and mouth size.

If we look at Ms. Davis, against mainstream standards of beauty that says that thin, white, young, curvy and blond is the norm, then I read her desire to show up to the Oscars with short chestnut afro as a rupture in popular culture representations of beauty. At least for that moment.

In a moment, when she knew that the focus would be on her, she chose to show up wearing a hairstyle that many people, some Black women included would call uncivilized.

What does it mean toΒ  show up to the Oscars as a Julliard trained dark skinned Black woman, who is nominated for an Oscar for playing a maid in a movie that is a mainstream/hegemonic narrative about the “Good Old South”? In 2012?

Viola Davis and Black Women’s Genius

I knew that Davis was a genius when I learned two things. The first, is that for her role in Doubt she created a thirty page report/dossier on her character because she knew she only had two scenes to nail the character.

Thirty pages? That means you are invested in your craft.

The second reason why I knew she was a genius is because of Toni Morrison’s Sula. In some ways when I read that she created this dossier, I was immediately reminded of Morrison’s Sula, and the idea of a woman without an artistic form becoming dangerous.

It was in this moment that I realized that Davis, needs to produce her work otherwise she wouldn’t be right.

What do I mean by being right?

How many broken spirited people do you know who ain’t right largely because they knew they were put here on this planet to do something, but rather than embrace that thing, they took the path of least resistance?

What does it mean in 2012 to not take the path of least resistance when your Julliard training implicitly tells you that you should expect to be doing Shakespeare after you graduate from your acting program?

What do you do when you learn that the rules for you and the rules for your peers are not one and the same?

What does it mean to be a Black woman, looking to be validated by an industry that has historically seen people like you only as being fit to play a maid?

Why Black Women Film Directors?

NY Times article on Black Film in the early 1990’s titled “They’ve Gotta Have Us” by Karen Grigsby Bates

Note: There will be a few blog posts on Pariah and Black women’s directors over the next few weeks as I move like a squirrel with a flashlight trying to finish this paper. I cannot have boss bear calling me trifling.

 

The trouble with being erased for so long is that you come to think of your erasure as being natural. ~ Lorraine O’Grady in “The Cave, Lorraine O’Grady on Black Women Film Directors

Last week my homie James asked me why it was significant that Cooper and Rees fundraised to make Pariah when Black filmmakers were doing that waaay back in ’91.

The early 90’s were interesting years for Black films, but these films were primarily by black men directors featuring the narratives by and large of Black men and boys. To my knowledge and correct me if I am wrong the only filmsΒ  that had major theatrical distribution that was directed by a Black woman were Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

The fact that Harris and Dash are the only Black woman from that era that directed a feature length film with major distribution must be noted. Furthermore, the other side of the Harris- Dash coin is the quasi over-representation of Black women’s stories in the recent economic market place.

I say quasi over-representation because we see stories being produce that feature Black women’s bodies but they are not the directors.

Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Bill Duke and Tim Story are 5 black men who have released films in the last 3 years that feature stories about Black women. Which begs the question, where are the Black women directors, directing features with major distribution?

Then there is the Black Woman Can’t Get a Man industrial complex where “The Washington Post”, “CNN”, “MSNBC”, The Economist, scholars (Ralph Banks) and various other magazines explore possible reasons for the “low” marital rates for US heterosexual Black women. #jesusbeaFence. Every time I look up somebody has some something to say about the Who, Where, When, How and Why about Black women’s dating lives. I personally think that the these stories function as a way to make us seem deviant in this current historical moment.

Have Black women directors of feature films been erased for so long that we consider their erasure natural?

Hortense Spillers says that Black women are the beached whale of the sexual universe and that we are awaiting our verb.

Honestly, when I think about the politics of listening to Black women’s stories I am reminded of a scene in Ava Duvernay’s documentary “My Mic Sounds Nice” on women in rap music. In this documentary there is a moment where Stephen Hill states that in some ways the reason why there are very few Black women emcees rapping is because rap music is a male dominated genre where many of the stories are talking about women, so in other words, why would rap audience members want to hear these women speak back?

#Peace to Kasi Lemmons.