Almost a year has passed since The New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley ignited a massive uproar on Twitter with a strangely ignorant piece about Shonda Rhimes, in which she claimed that Rhimes’ biography should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman” and described How to Get Away With Murder star Viola Davis as “less classically beautiful” than other lighter-skinned black actresses. Rhimes was understandably upset at the time. “How come I am not ‘an angry black woman’ the many times Meredith (or Addison!) rants?” she tweeted, referring to two white characters from Grey’s Anatomy. Now, looking back, she can finally see that one good thing came out of that piece: the backlash against it.
“Very quickly, maybe because of Twitter, there were some really beautiful articles written in response that made me feel like, ‘Oh my god, there are some thinking people out there!'” she told EW during the roundtable discussion with Viola Davis, Ellen Pompeo, and Kerry Washington that’s on this week’s cover. “Because if that had gone uncommented upon, I would’ve felt like, That’s what’s out there. I remember starting the day feeling one way” — Rhimes took a deep breath, just remembering how frustrated she was — “and ending the day feeling very warmed.”
But Rhimes and Davis were careful not to put too much of a positive gloss on the experience. When Pompeo added, “If any good comes out of ignorance, then I’ll take the ignorance,” Davis let out a big sigh.
“I understand what Ellen is talking about, but I’ve been on the other side of ignorance,” she said. “Colorism and racism in this country are so powerful that the Jim Crow laws are gone, and we know most of segregation is gone, but what’s left is a mindset. As an actress, I have been a great victim of that.”
“There were lot of things that people did not allow me to be until I got [the role of] Annalise Keating,” she explained. “I was not able to be sexualized. Ever. In my entire career. And here’s the thing that’s even more potent: I’ve never seen anyone who even looks like me be sexualized on television or in film. Ever. When people say they’re tired of hearing that, I always say, ‘Okay, well, you give me an example and then I’ll stop talking about it. But I’m gonna talk about it until you hear it.'”
Davis says that bias has made her more resolved to turn Annalise into someone you might not expect her to be during the next season on How to Get Away With Murder. “I’m so tired of hearing people say, ‘No, we can’t have her say that because that’s not something she would say.”” Davis says. “What if it is something she would say? What corridor can we go down for an entire season if she said that, if she did that? What new things can we discover? What values can we add that can therefore be revolutionary? I don’t want anyone putting any limits on me. I am tired of it. Because as a human being, there are times when I don’t know who the hell I am until the situation presents itself.”
To continue reading more about Shondaland and the upcoming seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here.
WANT MORE EW? Subscribe now to keep up with the latest in movies, television, music, and more.