A discussion with Viola Davis – promoting African American storytelling

Categories: Annual Meetings, Insights, News

Viola Davis: Winner of the coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony)

On Day 1 of the Afreximbank Annual Meetings (AAM2024) on June 12, 2024, we were blessed to have an audience with one of the true legends of the silver screen, Viola Davis, the winner of the coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). She shared a stage with her husband, actor and producing partner Julius Tennon and author, Lavaille Lavette, who together launched JVL Media, an independent publishing company focused on diversity and inclusion.

The event opened to rapturous applause as Viola Davis was introduced as the star of “The Woman King,” the 2022 film depicting the valiant all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey between the 17th and 19th centuries. The introduction set the tone for the lively discussions that followed.

The discussion was prefaced with an important signing ceremony – a memorandum of intent -representing a formal agreement between Afreximbank’s FEDA and JVL Media to engage in a partnership aimed at fostering the advancement of publishing Africa’s film development value chain and promoting Afro-narratives within global cinema through the Creative African Nexus programme. In essence, the agreement concerns telling African American stories together, the Global African narrative.

The ensuing conversation centred around the importance of connecting Global Africa with the tools to make a difference, to provide a catalyst for the African film development value chain and leveraging African’s humanity resources through storytelling that includes all aspects of African life. 

Viola Davis, Julius Tennon and Lavaille Lavette discussed the challenges and triumphs of producing films like “The Woman King.”  They highlighted the importance of depicting authentic African experiences and breaking away from stereotypical portrayals often seen in mainstream media.

All speakers emphasised the need for partnerships to boost the creative sector, enabling more creative and authentic storytelling to provide a balanced perspective on African history. They also highlighted the impact of media representation on shaping perceptions of Africa and the role of African actors in creating impactful representations of the continent.

Viola was asked what that signing moment meant for her. She replied “what that moment meant to me was freedom and freedom and autonomy which is control over your own voice and work.”

Viola went on to say that the problem with our storytelling is that it’s through a white gaze. She painted a picture that, for example, when African Americans remain drug addicts, they remain mothers who are crying over dead sons’ bodies because they got stopped by the police or get killed in a police involved shooting, the perception is very limited. And so what we’re doing through storytelling is humanising us to expand the storytelling, saying that we’re more than just drug addicts; maybe we’re just a mother.

She continued by saying there is a part of us, African Americans, probably also Africans, that has literally embraced images that had been filtered through the white gaze. “This means,” Viola said, “To be worthy, we always have to look beautiful. Or to be worthy we have to be in Black Panther and do backflips and carry swords and be able to disappear. Or to be worthy we have to be that cute black woman that is lighter than a paper bag in a romantic comedy. And what I say is that things can be true but there’s a whole other side of storytelling. Our job as artists is to take life and filter it through us, through our tablets, and give it back to you.”

The discussion culminated with Davis reflecting on the broader impact of their work and their vision for the future. She stressed the importance of leaving a legacy through storytelling, one that transcends generations and ignites a sense of pride and identity among Africans worldwide.

“Our goal is to create stories that are expansive and deeply human,” Davis stated. “By telling our stories from our perspective, we hope to inspire and empower others, showing the world the true richness of African culture and history.”

The discussion concluded with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to leveraging African stories in the global narrative. The partnership between JVL Media and Afreximbank represents a significant milestone in this journey, promising a future where African voices are heard and celebrated on the world stage.