Review: Finding Me (Viola Davis)

On Saturday, 20 August I got a message from an unknown number informing me they had a parcel for me from Tendi van der Mufunde. Because this son of mother had not said anything to me about the parcel I wondered what it could be. When I received the parcel I felt it with my hands and it felt like a book and I thought well, it could be a journal then I thought hard and remembered I had posted on my WhatsApp status begging for someone, anybody to gift me the Viola Davis memoir, “Finding Me.” I had an inkling son of mother had read between the lines and answered this “prayer” of mine. When I opened the parcel I was ecstatic and started dancing and ululating like a mad one. I read the memoir over twenty-four hours.

I had experienced Viola in the following films; “Fences.” “The Help.” “Widows,” and most recently in the TV series “How To Get Away With Murder.” It always bothered me how she always got roles about struggle and how she embodied the struggle like a real lived experience and now after reading the memoir I understand how she settled, owned the characters she played and she rightly says “…your depth of understanding yourself is equal to the depth of understanding a character.” All this time she was giving ‘herself’ to us in those movies.

This memoir is a roller coaster of the journey and life of Viola Davis. This is a story about chaos, violence, anger, poverty, shame, fear, trauma, racism, colourism but ultimately, a story of forgiveness and triumph. I can relate to it on many fronts but most critically as a writer/performer and someone who has suffered with fibroids for the longest time and like Viola I am close to telling the doctor to yank the whole thing out if it doesn’t kill me before I am strong enough to relay the order.

“The plumbing was shoddy, so the toilets never flashed. Actually, I don’t ever remember toilets working in our apartments. I became very skilled at filling up a bucket and pouring it into the toilet to flash it.”

Even though circumstances may be different, this hits home and immediately pulls the veil on the life we see on TV and some realities experienced by those who sell us the illusion that life is honky dory where they come from when their lived realities could be totally different, the opposite of the lives portrayed on TV and even a friend of Viola is shocked by the level of lack when they visit her home;

“…one time a friend came over to our house and when she opened the refrigerator and saw there was nothing in it, asked, “Are you guys moving?”

It was not just the poverty it was also the abuse that is glaring in this memoir. Her father always beating her mother when he was drunk, how Viola and her siblings witnessed this without being able to help in any way as kids. I was left teary when I read this;

“There are not enough pages to mention the fights, the constantly being awakened in the middle of the night or coming home after school to my dad’s rages and praying he wouldn’t lose so much control that he would kill my mom. Sometimes her head or arm would split open. She would have a swollen face, split lip. I was always afraid when he picked anything up like a piece of wood because he would hit her as hard as he could and keep beating. Sometimes all night. There was many times we would see droplets of blood leading to our apartment and we just knew what was happening.”

This hit close to home again. Once my family lived next door to a family whose father was always beating the mother every time he came from the beerhall drunk. He kept an Assegai and he would run around the house chasing his wife threatening to kill her. I wonder if they too felt like Viola.

“I imagined what our lives would be like without him. I imagined a life with no more drunken rages and constant abuse of my mom. I secretly felt how much better our lives would be.”

I can’t begin to think of the magnitude of trauma and scars this left on the mother and the children who were always screaming for help. Lucky for my neighbour people always intervened but Viola and her siblings didn’t get that relief of extended compassion.

It also took me to a conversation I had with a work colleague some time ago. My colleague told me that she has a guy-friend who told her he was not on speaking terms with his father and that even when the father died he did not mourn him. Reading this memoir kind of gave a reason why a child and a parent could drift apart to that extend. Unattended trauma can be a cancer. It however appears that Viola worked on healing and forgave her father before he died.

It can be said that Will Smith helped Viola Davis on her healing journey by asking her, “Viola who are you?” After unsatisfactorily answering the question Will gives her a lead by telling her who he is, Will says, “Look, I’m always going to be that fifteen-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke you with him. That’s always going to be me. So who are you?” I stopped there and asked myself the same question to me this question rang like the “Acomodador” in Paulo Coelho’s book, The Zahir…that event in our lives that is responsible for us failing to progress; a trauma, a particularly bitter defeat, a disappointment in love, even a victory that we did not quite understand, can be making cowards of us and preventing us from moving on. Who am I? “I’m the little girl who will forever want acknowledgment for what I do because it was never extended to me when I was growing up.” Who are you?

What struck me was how this adversity, the trauma was the driving force of what Viola eventually became. Her deliberate steps and passion in stage and screen acting inspired by the inimitable Cecily Tyson are encouraging. To have a clear vision from a tender age and set your mind to it without wavering despite the many adversities she met on the way is beyond charming.

“I felt if I did not go to college, if I did not get a degree, if I was not excellent then my parents’ reality would become my own…either you achieved or you failed,” and she goes on to say, “I felt that achievement could detox bad shit. It would detox poverty.”

There is a lot to learn from this memoir as artists. Finding one’s voice and staying authentic to it. The idea of stepping away, highlighted in Viola’s trip to the Gambia and how it allowed her to clearly articulate what it is that she was about and the essence of what she wanted to represent with her art. Because not everyone is born with a silver spoon in their mouth, she subtly talks of putting in the work and being patient;

“Most actors don’t want to be artists, they want to be famous,” and, “Fame is intoxicating.”

“I’ve realized there in no true network, no rhyme or reason or textbook way to getting into this business, except finally getting a job that leads to the next job and the next.”

Putting in the work and showing up are the best referrals for an artist it seems but whilst waiting for that break of that one big job that will lead to the next one, work, work, work because, “you have no leverage if you do not work.”

I was to learn something very important that writing like, “acting is a collaborative art form.”.

“The actor needs the director, writer, make-up artist, hairstylist, cinematographer and finally the audience,” just as much as the writer needs the editor, graphic designer, typesetter, proof-reader, printer, book reviewer and readers. Everything artistic is a whole production depending on the existing ecosystem or artistic community that supports all the efforts from the different players.

Viola reveals the ugly and the beautiful of being in the film industry. I was left with no illusion that it is no easy feat to get as far as she has with nominations and so many awards under her belt without sacrifice and hard work. The many sacrifices made whilst keeping eyes on the price. The hunger, the tears, the pain and in the end the triumph and growth making history by becoming the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Drama for her work on How to Get Away With Murder and establishing of her own production house. Despite going on this roller coaster, Viola says;

“…what I have realized since is that those moments of feeling alive are part of a continuum. You find that moment. You bask in it. Then as soon as it passes, life becomes about chasing the next moment. I now understand that life, and living it, is more about being present. I’m now aware that the not-so-happy memories lie in wait; but the hope and the joy also lie in wait,”

because hey,

“There is no way whatsoever to get through life without scars. No way!! It’s a friggin’ emotional boxing ring.”