Viola Davis Created a Production Company ‘Out of Necessity’ for More ‘Prestige’ Roles for Black Actors

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When Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon created their production company JuVee Productions in 2011, the Oscar-winning actress said they did so “out of necessity” to create more fully realized roles for people of color, including themselves.

“I always say if you want to see where your career is going, see where the top people are in your category,” Davis said during a panel at Saturday’s Produced By conference. “And I didn’t see anything. The talent is there, but the material was not. So, after a while you have to be the change you want to see.”

The multi-hyphenate explained that she and her husband of 19 years were seeking “prestige” projects that allowed Black actors — and other creators of color — to not only showcase their talent through complex roles but also dispel the myths and harmful stereotypes about marginalized communities.

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“With all due respect, I did not want to see another narrative where I was crying over my dead son’s body after dying from a drive-by shooting. I see myself as more complicated, and I see all people of color as way more complicated,” she said. “We were seeking material that honored people who were on the periphery who want to be seen, who want their humanity to be seen fully and completely — and that’s anyone standing on the sideline.”

Her words reminded moderator Yvette Nicole Brown of Davis’ role as Annalise Keating on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.” Specifically, Brown referenced a scene from Season 1, where Davis sits down at her vanity and removes her wig to reveal her natural hair before wiping away her makeup. While some might not have realized the gravity of seeing that moment on television, Brown said “every Black woman” did.

“I made that decision before I signed on to [the show],” Davis explained of that role and the decision to depict her character that way. “The power of our art form is to create characters that remind you that you are less alone. I wanted to do that with Annalise Keating — especially in a dark-skinned woman because dark-skinned women, we literally are always on the caboose.”

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JuVee Productions has financed projects including “The First Lady” on Showtime, in which Davis starred as Michelle Obama. The company’s other recent projects include ABC’s “The Last Defense,” Bravo’s “In a Man’s World” and the documentary “Emanuel,” which honored the Charleston Massacre victims. In 2020, the company expanded its first-look deal with Amazon Studios, where they have several projects in the works.

During Saturday’s panel, Tennon re-iterated Davis’ statement that, in addition to financing their own projects, they were also driven by the desire to expand the stories told by and about marginalized communities.

“The tropes and the stereotypes are so pervasive for people of color, we wanted to get away from that because as Viola just said, we’re more than that,” he said. “So, we wanted to create narratives and characters that lived full lives, that are fully realized human beings, and then just tell a story around that.”

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