Viola Davis and director Gina Prince-Bythewood, the formidable forces behind the world premiere of TIFF woman king, opened up during a discussion on stage at a festival about their personal battles for success as black artists.
Audiences at the In Conversation With… session on Saturday, September 10 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox heard how, despite Davis’ talent, the Juilliard School graduate and eventual first African-American to win the game’s “triple crown” actor” – Oscar, Emmy and Tony Awards – was not immune to rejection because of his gender and race.
“It was very difficult to navigate my path as an actress because people put so many stamps on you,” Davis said. “When you walk into an audition room, I couldn’t tell you how many people said you’re not black enough, you don’t sound black, you’re too dark skinned, you’re not black enough. attractive, it is a prototypical black.
“And then white people would say you’re too black to be like the classic actress. So you try to disappear, to become the real white actress.
“I could never see myself reflected anywhere”
The same goes for Prince-Bythewood, who broke out with his debut in 2000 Love & Basketball and directed Davis in world premiere at TIFF The woman king – the historical action drama about female Agojie warriors in the 1800s who defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey.
Prince-Bythewood noted how the notion of representation was one of his main inspirations for becoming a filmmaker – and in particular the lack of representation of black girls and women. “I grew up in an all-white area,” she said, “so I never got to see myself reflected anywhere, certainly not on TV or in movies.”
When the director was 17, she saw a trailer for She must have it and said she saw herself in the lead role of Nola Darling. “Not this particular character,” she joked, “but his darkness. And I never forgot that feeling. I told myself that I wanted to do this. I want to give others that feeling too.
Prince-Bythewood is preparing to plan his first feature film Love & Basketball, which she compared to the black equivalent of When Harry Met Sally. However, the filmmaker revealed that “there were crickets” when she attempted to get the film shot. “Every studio, every production company refused. I had a list on my fridge and every day I made up for it and the last one was Jodie Foster’s studio [Egg Pictures] and it was devastating.
“Miraculously, two days after the last cross-off, Sundance called about the script and wanted to come meet and it was transformative. They did a reading and Spike Lee’s company was there and that was my lifeline. Lee’s 40 Acres & A Mule produced the romantic sports drama, which premiered in Park City in January 2000 and was eventually distributed in the United States by New Line.
Overcome impostor syndrome
Davis shared that she “overcame impostor syndrome” by embracing unabashed self-confidence. “I say to six-year-old Viola, who was really tough and used bad language but was really smart at school, ‘I’m not a stereotype; no one is’. I tell Viola that who and what she is is enough.
Davis’ self-doubt because of prejudice was echoed by Prince-Bythewood. beyond the lights, the director’s 2014 romance, took three years and 55 drafts until it was ready. She shared how “it was overwhelming trying to sell your script to a room full of white men and getting no after no after no.”
Prince-Bythewood continued: “All of my stuff is personal so what I was told was nobody cared about my story and nobody cared about that black girl’s story. To be told, ‘Okay, it’s a love story, but can you dump the white guy?’ It’s just a constant fight, but we’re so few and if I’m not in the fight and V [Davis] is not in the fight these things would not be done.
Reflecting on the duo’s struggle for success in Hollywood, session host Kathleen Newman-Bremang said the Hollywood industry “would look a lot less free without you two”.
Davis replied, “I was once told at a party, ‘Success isn’t the ceiling, Viola – it’s importance, it’s the ceiling.’ Make your life count; it must be about more than you. And then, how do you live otherwise? Otherwise, how can you be rolling in the grave if you don’t free someone else? »