Viola Davis: ‘Prisoners’ star reveals she ‘never felt pretty’ at Essence mag talk, until embracing natural hair

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Viola Davis, Oscar-nominated actress and star of the hit film Prisoners, spoke recently at an Essence magazine event in New York City — and revealed some intimate secrets. While participating in a day-long preview of the magazine’s upcoming programming — including the 20th anniversary of the Essence Festival — she discussed learning to love herself despite society’s negative messages.

“I have never felt pretty,” she said during a luncheon interview with Essence editor-in-chief Vanessa K. Bush. Davis described a childhood of poverty and abuse, combined with being in the only black family in her community.

People in her neighborhood used profanity to describe her to her face. She internalized these messages.

“In fact, I embraced being ugly,” the actress said. But, rather than let such perceptions destroy her sense of hope (“Without hope, I would be dead,” she said), the thespian chose to work on her inner strengths.

A black beauty is born

For Davis, this meant perfecting her artistic craft at legendary institutions such as The Juilliard School. The rest is, of course, history. Now one of the most accomplished actresses living, she is a black beauty icon defying conventional standards.

Having just graced the October issue of Essence wearing her natural hair in an elegant updo, it is hard to imagine her experiencing such alienation. But Davis revealed that it was not until she stopped wearing wigs that she was able to completely accept herself.

Making it big also helped to calm old wounds. “My career has gotten to a certain point where I have a certain semblance of power. That power has allowed me to work through it,” she said of that pain.

A natural hair crown of glory

But, Davis still felt “spiritually naked” in the public eye despite her success. Changing her hair was the final means of defending herself from the negative voices of the past.

“I was begging to be loved, [and] got tired,” she said of wearing wigs. She joked with the crowd that she had a “jacuzzi wig” and “post-jacuzzi wig” among many styles, which “came to be seen as a crutch.”

With natural hair as her crown of glory, Davis is using her full empowerment to further expand the realm of positive images available to black women — beyond her Essence covers.

She and husband, actor Julius Tennon, are now making films through their company, JuVee Productions, created to “tell our stories,” Davis said.

Star vehicles on the horizon

Among several ideas in the works, Davis described their Harriet Tubman biopic as “sexy” and “heroic,” while assuring the crowd that it is “all based on truth” (likely referring to the scandal of Russell Simmons releasing a controversial short based on the heroine).

Their Barbara Jordan project chronicles this pioneering member of Congress in a screenplay penned by Tony Kushner, author of the historical masterpiece, Lincoln.

There’s even a romantic comedy called I’m Your Man on the roster. Why such a breadth of genres? Davis explained that — in terms of Hollywood representations of black women — not much will change until more African-American actresses are offered star vehicles.

“I can either wait for it in Hollywood — and it can come — or I can create it myself,” she told the leader of Essence.

Addressing black ambivalence and The Help

But Davis also tasked black audiences to support black projects, even those such as The Help, which many African-Americans might be ambivalent about.

She encouraged audiences to develop an appetite for stories that expose uncomfortable truths, because the nature of art involves experimentation, and most mainstream artists receive support during good periods and bad. Black artists deserve the same thing.

“We have to stick with our artists, even through our failures,” Davis explained. This is the key to keeping more black films coming. “You speak with your money.”

To continue enjoying acclaimed movies such as Fruitvale Station, African-Americans must show up in force. “It’s up to us. The door is opening now, but it could close,” Davis warned.

Images of Black Women in Media: A study

Viola Davis spoke about expanding the scope of black women’s images as part of a presentation detailing a new Essence magazine survey: The Images of Black Women in Media study.

Featured in the November issue on newsstands now, this study quantifies the frequency with which black women experience stereotypes, along with emerging, positive images of black women.

The Melissa Harris-Perry show will host a panel discussion on the study on Sunday, October 13, between 11:30 am and 12 noon, on MSNBC.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb. is a division of MSNBC.