Still from 'The First Lady'/Showtime

How ‘Black Excellence’ Led To Viola Davis’ Mouth In 'The First Lady'

Like two suns battling to see who can shine the brightest, here we have Viola Davis and Michelle Obama.

Culture & Entertainment

I suppose that the casting of Viola Davis as Michelle Obama was always bound to lead to catastrophe. Like two suns battling to see who can shine the brightest, here we have women hailing from the same Obama-era cultural lineage of unimpeachable Black Excellence, converging in Showtime’s The First Lady.

Still from 'The First Lady'/Showtime

Davis stars as Lady Obama turning in what should’ve been another Emmy-baiting performance in the exhausted genre of prestige dramas that excavate history to pander to our current political climate. Instead, Davis gives a bemusing interpretation of the former first lady that harkens back to the early days of Obama’s public life when anti-Black, misogynoir political caricaturists overexaggerated her physical features. There’s Davis’ wonky attempt at Obama’s Chicago-reared accent, her razor-thin eyebrows, and her mouth. Oh my God, her mouth.

Davis’ insistence on basing her entire transformation into Obama on fixing her mouth in a permanent scrunched position — even as she’s speaking — leads me to side with the theory that some fans on Twitter have proposed that there must be friction between the two ladies.

Davis’ performance — as cringe as it is — however, is less relevant to what led to her accepting the role. Within the past decade, since being catapulted into fame by her role in How to Get Away With Murder, an air of regalness has been bestowed upon Davis that’s only rivaled by the woman who once resided in the most esteemed house in the country. Davis’ awards acceptance speeches often have the energizing force of a motivational speech. Her voice alone can easily oscillate between a tranquil balm to a powerful near-Shakespearean soliloquy.

On paper, her casting as Michelle Obama made sense because she is Michelle Obama. She is the vision of aspirational Black womanhood that has emerged in the last decade. As a graduate of the Shonda Rhimes School of Strong Female Leads which produces characters who speak primarily in monologues, you can easily hear Davis’ voice saying Obama’s famous mantra, “When they go low we go high.”

Still from 'The First Lady'/Showtime

So it's no wonder why Davis, who also executive produces The First Lady, chose to take on this role. She faced (much lighter) criticism when she took on the role of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom because of her choice to wear a fat suit rather than, as an EP, give the role to an actress who didn’t need prosthetics to play the role. But it’s a testament to Davis’ stature that even as many people derided her Ma Rainey and Obama performances, they still show reverence towards the Oscar award-winning actress.

In perhaps an ironic twist of fate, Davis’ memoir Finding Me – a book that revives the same feelings of Black excellence as exemplified through wealth accumulation and "overcoming the odds" that Obama’s Becoming does – comes out shortly after the release of The First Lady.

A memoir is always an easy way for a public figure to affirm their place in history. And the place where Davis finds herself is one that can only be rivaled by American royalty.

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Featured image still via The First Lady/Showtime

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

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I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

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