Viola Davis was just eight years old when she saw the TV movie that changed her life.
The landmark film, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” was broadcast for the first time in 1974. And even though “our television set” “did not work,” her family had another one that did, sitting on top of it. It was one of those somewhat rare nights when the Davis family’s electricity was on at 128 Washington St. in Central Falls, Rhode Island.
You want an object lesson in why “representation” matters in film, entertainment and other media?
“A woman who looked just like MaMama (how her siblings addressed their mother) came on television…and something magical happened.”
Davis relates that epiphany right in the middle of the horrific opening chapters of “Finding Me,” her new memoir about growing up painfully poor and not just Black, but “dark skinned” Black, not just abused but molested, neglected and ashamed of all of it, and herself.
Whatever glories were to follow, a child who — as she repeatedly reminds us — “didn’t have the words” for what she was facing or the willingness to share them all through a wrenchingly wretched childhood, had just gotten her first taste of who and what she wanted to be.
Tony, Oscar and Emmy trophies — “Doubt, “The Help,” “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and TV’s “How to Get Away with Murder” and “The First Lady” — widely recognized as one of the finest actresses of her generation, all spun out of a movie she saw on TV.
As she notes in her caption to a photo of her and “Pittman” star Cicely Tyson on the set of Davis’ own TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder” in “Finding Me,” “I secretly used every opportunity to hold and kiss her” every time they worked together.
“Finding Me” is a brutally frank memoir of the “Everyone’s the Hero of Their Own Story” school that Oprah Winfrey popularized. Davis describes the vicious beatings her racehorse-groom father gave to her mother, herself and her siblings, her traumatized and neglectful first-baby-at-15 mother and the PTSD of sexual abuse in a small town in an era when perverts were half-tolerated as town “characters,” who touched little girls, and worse.
“Acting up” and acting out at school, often unwashed because they hadn’t been able to pay their water bill, smelling of urine from years of bedwetting and having no access to soap, a shower or the ability to wash her clothes, it’s a miracle this child didn’t grow up and remain a headcase for the ages.
An Upward Bound acting workshop one summer in her early teens helped Davis “feel seen” and find her tribe, people who accepted her and shared their “everybody’s going through something” stories in this taxpayer-funded outreach program that so many credit with saving their futures.
Davis discovered she wasn’t “ugly” after growing up in a place where the N-word was hurled her family’s way on a daily basis. She started to shed her “shame” and come into the light.
But the “shame” and self-image issues she keeps coming back to in “Finding Me” still weigh on her and drive her art. She was years past college and Juilliard when I first interviewed Davis, just as her breakout movie — the film adaptation of “Doubt” — was rolling out. And what I remember about that chat was her obsession about was how “ugly” her signature crying scene was in that movie, “boogers and all,” as she jokingly put it.
Reading this memoir — which will make you wince or even grimace more than once — seems to explain that, the lifelong test that brought her to that moment, the shame that any less than flattering screen moment might instill, all those decades later.
It’s a terrific book whose brutal candor in description, interior terrors and unfiltered language puts a great artist in therapy, confessing her truth to the reader. And if you’re a little rattled by its first two words — profanities that she’d mastered at eight years old — that’s kind of the idea.
“Finding Me,” by Viola Davis. HarperOne Books, 291 pages, $28.99.