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Viola Davis Takes On The Pay Gap For African American Actresses

Viola Davis rocked the audience in Los Angeles last Tuesday when she pulled no punches in talking about the Hollywood pay gap that persists for African American actors and the particular struggles of African American actresses.

Veteran actress Viola Davis has earned prestige and multiple awards—so why does Hollywood refuse to pay her and other African American actresses fairly?

Davis is a two-time Tony Award winner, a Golden Globe winner, an Oscar winner and the first African American actress to win the best actress in a drama Emmy in 2015 for her role in How To Get Away With Murder.

“I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver,” Davis said at the Women in the World Los Angeles Salon in February. “They all came out of Yale. They came out of Julliard, They came out of NYU. They had the same path as me, and yet, I am nowhere near them — not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, nowhere close to it.”

Davis went on to explain that African American actresses “get probably a tenth of what a Caucasian woman gets. And I’m No. 1 on the call sheet”—adding that white women themselves only get “half of what a man is getting paid” in Hollywood.

The actress also disclosed that African American actresses are still routinely relegated to secondary characters on screen.

Unquestionably, there are audiences who crave inclusive and diverse stories, but unfortunately we live in a country that historically hasn’t displayed enough of it in our media.

Whether we realize it or not, audiences have been conditioned to expect certain representations in the arts. There have been gains and exceptions in film, like 1996’s Waiting to Exhale, 2011’s Bridesmaids, and this year’s blockbuster Black Panther—but progress is gradual and does not ignite a sea change overnight, as these films prove.

Any casual observer can deduce that Hollywood is still a staunch business, often boiling down to what fills up theater seats and lines pockets most. The industry is afraid to take chances on subjects that are heretofore not considered mainstream, therefore less profitable.

Gifted, accomplished actresses like Viola Davis are undeniably worthy, but will our society take steps towards more roles for African American actresses and actors in Hollywood?

Chances have to be taken on both sides of the screen: studios and audiences have to be willing to broaden our perspectives. Until then, equality will always be deemed too unprofitable in the eyes of those who currently hold power.


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