As the first Black actress to win two Tony Awards, an Oscar, an Emmy and a Grammy, Viola Davis is passionate about nurturing diverse filmmaking voices that span the broad spectrum of humanity. She is also the co-founder of JuVee Productions, a philanthropist and the New York Times bestselling author of the 2022 autobiography "Finding Me."

And on Thursday at Indeed FutureWorks 2023, she joined Indeed CMO Jessica Jensen in a wide-ranging conversation about her life, her career and the power of discovering your own voice.

Indeed CMO Jessica Jensen (left) welcomed EGOT award-winning actress and producer Viola Davis (right) to the Indeed FutureWorks 2023 stage. They engaged in a candid discussion aout bias and barriers in Hollywood, lessons from Davis's life and the power of finding your own voice.

Overcoming Bias and Barriers in Hollywood — and Beyond

Professional headshot of Viola Davis, Public Figure with FutureWorks gradient of colors in the background
Viola Davis, Public Figure

“Black women are coming from a history where we were seen as chattel,” Davis said. “It's taken the culture a long time to come to grips with the fact that we are indeed equal, that we are indeed women, feminine, complicated.” 

That reluctance to accept and support Black stories extends to Hollywood. Black stories “don’t get the budgets, the directors or the stars,” Davis said, noting that they’re also often shaped to appeal to the 18-to-34-year-old white male demographic. Assuming the voice of an imagined test audience member: “‘We don't understand your hair. We don't know how to pronounce your name. You're so dark — it doesn't turn me on…’ How the hell do we appeal to them?” 

Professional headshot of Jessica Jenson, Indeed Chief Marketing Officer with FutureWorks gradient of colors in the background
Jessica Jenson, Indeed Chief Marketing Officer

Referring to the “incredible mic drop” in Davis’s 2015 Emmy speech — “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity” — Jensen asked if the situation has improved.

Davis’s response was direct: “No.”

It’s a pivotal historical moment for artists of color, Davis said. “So much of our hands are tied. We need the resources to be able to do what we do. Because it's not our imagination, it's not our ability that’s standing in the way. It's opportunity and access to opportunity — which is a reflection of our culture.”

Because it's not our imagination, it's not our ability that’s standing in the way. It's opportunity and access to opportunity — which is a reflection of our culture.

Actress, director, and producer Viola Davis

Finding Her Own Voice … 

For her part, Davis said she is still finding her voice. “For many years, like any person that grows up in dysfunction and trauma, you also grow up with a stigma toward opening your mouth and telling your story. Silence is encouraged.”

Today, though, her connection to her younger, wounded self is a constant source of guidance and empowerment. (Davis calls her “little Viola.”) “I feel like she is ever-present,” she said. “She tells me her needs. She tells me when I don't show up for her.

“When I'm in spaces, especially in spaces as a Black woman, when I feel anyone is saying something that deeply wounds me, and I don't feel like I opened my mouth [to speak up for myself], I'm slapping little Viola in the face once again.”

She added, “Feeding her has helped me find my voice.”

Too often, she said, we find our meaning through certain indicators of success — “our stats,” such as the school we go to, our profession or how much money we make. Instead, Davis said, we should concentrate on owning, and finding meaning in, our personal histories. “I'm Viola Davis — born on Singleton Plantation, moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island, the daughter of Dan and Mae Alice Davis. That is essentially who I am. And if I don't own it, or own that story, then I'm orphaned.” 

She may be an EGOT-winning Hollywood actress, she said, but she’s still also “the introverted, shy little girl with crinkly curly hair who never really thought she was cute.”

Owning that narrative is Davis’s way of asserting control — or, in her words: “I get to steer the ship.” In fact, in 2020, she bought the house on Singleton Plantation where she was born. 

Sharing our stories, too, makes for a more empathic world. “That intense feeling of aloneness is what's driving mental illness,” Davis said. “That's what drives anxiety, depression. By the way, that's also what drives mass shooters. That intense feeling of aloneness.” (At this comment, the Indeed FutureWorks audience broke into applause.)

What will help people feel less alone? “When people own their own stories, it gives permission to others to do the same.”

… And Helping Her Daughter Find Her Own Voice

Davis’s daughter, Genesis, is 13. How does Davis think about inspiring and coaching her daughter for future success?

“I tell her all the time, ‘Your inner voice is your GPS. You are the love of your life. You know, no one else. Not me. Not Dad. Not whatever boy you meet. You are the love of your life. You are the navigator. And you know what?  Whoever you become once you get there, if you don't like it anymore and it's not filling you up, you can do something else. Don't let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything else.’”

I tell [my daughter] all the time, ‘Your inner voice is your GPS. You are the love of your life. You are the navigator.

Viola Davis

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