A Black photographer makes history with Vanity Fair cover starring Viola Davis

Viola Davis poses for a portrait at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto.
Viola Davis poses for a portrait at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto.Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Oscar-winner and Rhode Island native Viola Davis became a part of Vanity Fair history this week.

The July-August cover image, shot by Dario Calmese, marks the first time a Black photographer has shot the cover in the magazine’s 106-year history.

In the magazine’s cover story, Davis, a Central Falls, R.I., native, tells writer Sonia Saraiya: “My entire life has been a protest. ... My production company is my protest. Me not wearing a wig at the Oscars in 2012 was my protest. It is a part of my voice, just like introducing myself to you and saying, ‘Hello, my name is Viola Davis.’ ”


The image is also a protest, Calmese told The New York Times. He decided to replicate “The Scourged Back,” an 1863 photo of a runaway slave with grotesque whipping scars. Davis stands at a similar angle for the Vanity Fair cover.

“This is my protest. Thank you @violadavis for being my co-conspirator,” Calmese posted on Twitter. “Thank you to every black woman who’s felt invisible despite being on the front line of every fight. We see you. You are loved, you are powerful, and you are beautiful. This is for you.”

The image speaks to changing the “white gaze on Black bodies, and transmuting that into something of elegance and beauty and power,” Calmese told the Times.

Davis, 54, aired similar feelings when talking to Vanity Fair about her role as housemaid Aibileen in the 2011 movie “The Help,” saying the film was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”

“Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity. They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but … it’s catering to the white audience. The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. Then they leave the movie theater and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were.”


Davis also talks about the struggles of her childhood in Central Falls. The graduate of Rhode Island College and Juilliard has since been honored as Harvard’s 2017 Artist of the Year. She also won an Oscar, an Emmy, two Tonys, and a slew of other awards. Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012 and in 2017, when Meryl Streep wrote about her.

Calmese’s cover comes at a moment of reckoning over how fashion magazines treat people of color. Vogue is currently on blast for improperly lightning the skin of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles; the August cover was shot by photographer Annie Leibovitz. Some tweeters opined that Vogue needed to hire Black photographers.

Calmese has shot for Vanity Fair before, but this is his first cover — and it’s about time, some readers say.

“How old is this magazine? The first black photographer ever? Wow!” one Instagrammer commented on the magazine’s post.

Davis is known for giving back to her Rhode Island roots. In October, the actress visited Central Falls to support a free health clinic set up by the Vaseline Healing Project, according to CNN. The Central Falls High School alumna donated $10,000 to support the school’s International Thespian Society, the Providence Journal reported. She’s also donated to the city’s library, the high school chess team, and the Segue Institute for Learning charter school.


Meanwhile, Davis is gearing up to star as Michelle Obama in Showtime’s upcoming “First Ladies” series, and as blues legend Ma Rainey in upcoming projects, according to Vanity Fair.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.