Last night’s episode was arguably the most jaw-dropping yet as Professor Annalise Keating, her staff and law school students juggled getting one client off for insider trading, another out of jail after she had already confessed to murder–all while we flashed back to try to piece together what’s going to happen with yet another dead body. But one of the most compelling moments for me came at the end of the show, and not just because Annalise confronted her husband and asked him “why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” The moment came when Viola’s character finally stripped off her wig (see video above).
All season, in the office, we’ve wondered why the heck the show has put Viola Davis in those very obvious (and very bad — sorry!) wigs. Now the actress has recently addressed that in real life, she’s always relied on wigs because she has alopecia, but even still, it’s been hard to ignore her wig glue peeking out of ill-fitting hairpieces that look like shiny hair in HD. Surely a woman of Annalise Keating’s stature would do better? And if ABC network could find it in the budget to keep Kerry Washington’s edges laid to play “Olivia Pope” why would they do Viola like that?
Furthermore, after Viola’s moment of freedom at the 84th Annual Academy Awards in 2012 where she famously rocked her natural “TWA” (or teeny weeny afro in “naturalista” speak) we wondered why the show would put her in such fake-looking wigs every episode. The Oscars hair choice was a huge, headline making moment. To see a Black woman on a red carpet with the audacity to wear her hair like it grows out of her head and crediting her mother Mae Alice — rather than a celeb stylist — for perfecting her short, copper hair? Huge statement for the Best Actress Oscar nominee. “My husband wanted me to take the wig off,” Davis told InStyle. “He said, ‘If you want to wear it for your career, that’s fine, but in your life wear your hair. Step into who you are!’ It’s a powerful statement.” Little did we realize the “How To Get Away With Murder” writers and director were setting us up for an equally powerful statement.
(Pictured: Viola Davis glammed up in her natural hair on the red carpet at the 2012 Oscars)
On the show, after Annalise’s student shows her the pictures of her husband that confirm what she suspected was true — that he was having an affair with a girl who is now dead — Annalise comes home and she’s beyond tired. As she’s undressing after a long day, she slowly she strips off her wig to reveal a heap of matted natural hair underneath, she peels off fake eyelashes, she takes a wet wipe and removes all the makeup off her face — and there is a lot there: a heavy, smokey eye, foundation, blush, a dark lip. She completely takes it off until her face is bare. And then she stares at herself in the mirror with sad eyes. In that moment she is unmasked, vulnerable. Stripped down, she is ready to face her truth: no more hiding, pretending, hoping it’s something different or covering it up. It’s that moment Beyonce sings about at the end of “Pretty Hurts”: “When you’re alone all by yourself/And you’re lying in your bed/Reflection stares right into you/Are you happy with yourself?/You stripped away the masquerade/The illusion has been changed/Are you happy with yourself?”
We’ve seen Annalise in this mode before: coming home after a long day of being the put-together-boss, the type-A hard ass and cry or be exhausted or need to feel loved, but we’ve never seen her like this.
Though Annalise — and Viola for that matter — isn’t in her most “beautified” state, by the superficial cosmetic sense of the word, the symbolism is lovely. She is a complex and layered character and that moment made her feel real. She is also a Black woman, a dark-skinned woman in her completely natural state — not even a twist out and heavy makeup like at the Oscars — but down to her true actual, raw self. Over the years there’s been a mainstream embracing of the “natural hair movement” but how many times have we ever seen a Black hair moment that real on TV for that kind of character (they won’t even show Olivia Pope wrapping her hair…and you know)?
Amongst actors and actresses in general, appearing on screen with no hair or makeup rarely happens. Even men get caked up with layers of cosmetics for scenes. No hair and makeup on a Black woman character? Unheard of (unless of course she was a slave, crack head or one of the myriad of other “down and out” roles that Black actresses get tapped for). To see a character that’s a Black woman of power keep it that real on TV? Stunning.
As many times as we’ve all seen — or posted — the above meme on Instagram with “The Color Purple’s” main character “Celie” (Whoopi Goldberg) in her plaits, juxtaposed with a more glammed up woman with makeup and a full curly ‘Fro, it’s safe to say that many of us can relate to having a “daytime” head and a “night-time” head, just like Annalise…even if we don’t wear a wig or twist our hair into bantu knots. As women, and Black women, all day so many of us are — visually and otherwise — a slightly different version of ourselves at work. On the cosmetic front, there’s nothing wrong with getting dolled up, nothing at all. It’s just nice to see, for once, for the only time I can remember, a highly respected, ridiculously formidable Black woman being able to take off her invisible cape, remove everything else and be able to have a moment where she was not only standing in her God given image, but doing it in a moment where she could actually be human and vulnerable.
Bravo to the Shondaland team for this moment and to Viola, who deserves an Emmy for the way she acted the hell out of that scene. Whether or not she wins the honors, I hope she continues to bring us moments where she unapologetically wears the crown of her own hair. At the end of the day, getting comfortable in our own skin is what’s most beautiful.