Story at a glance

  • Viola Davis is on the cover of the upcoming July and August edition of Vanity Fair.
  • The actress and producer was photographed by Dario Calmese, the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of the magazine.
  • The cover story and focus of the issue highlight the recent protests surrounding Black rights and equality.

On the cover of the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair, Viola Davis faces away from the camera in a dress that reveals her bare back. The image, taken by Dario Calmese, calls back to the slave portraits taken by Louis Agassiz in the 1880s, in which their backs were covered in welts and scars. 

"This image reclaims that narrative, transmuting the white gaze on Black suffering into the Black gaze of grace, elegance, and beauty," Calmese, the first Black photographer featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, told the magazine. 

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In her interview, Davis spoke to Vanity Fair about her experience as a Black woman in Hollywood and the United States in the context of the recent protests against police violence and racism after the police killing of George Floyd. 

“I feel like 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,'" said the award-winning actress. 

The first Black actress to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting — an Academy Award, Emmy Award and Tony Award — Davis’s success comes in spite of the systemic racism she faces as a Black woman. In her interview, she discusses Vanity Fair’s past lack of inclusiveness. 

“They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers,” she told Vanity Fair. “But that’s a lot of magazines, that’s a lot of beauty campaigns. There’s a real absence of dark-skinned Black women. When you couple that with what’s going on in our culture, and how they treat Black women, you have a double whammy. You are putting us in a complete cloak of invisibility.”


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The magazine’s editor in chief Radhika Jones acknowledged this, counting 17 Black people on the cover of Vanity Fair in the 35 years between the relaunch of its current iteration in 1983 and 2017. In the two-and-a-half years since Jones took her current position, there have been 10 Black cover subjects, she noted. 

"No amount of praise or censure affects me, in my current role, so much as the hope that our choices might inspire a young person—a future actor, director, photographer, writer—to pursue their own creative vision or imagine themself in our pages. Iconography carries influence," she said in an editor's letter.

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death and ensuing protests, the magazine’s parent company has dealt with a reckoning of a racist culture and history. The New York Times reported that Jones ran into opposition from Susan Plagemann, the chief business officer of Condé Nast’s style division. Plagemann, who is white, allegedly said that the magazine should feature “more people who look like us."

“The challenge with her taking that new direction would be alienating some of the traditional Vanity Fair audience,” Conde Nast chief executive Roger Lynch told the New York Times. “I really applaud what she’s done.”

Calmese has photographed for Vanity Fair in the past, including shoots of Billy Porter, George McKay and Adrienne Warren. He told the New York Times that he didn’t realize he would be the first Black cover photographer in the magazine’s history, but that he knew the moment was historical. 

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“For me, this cover is my protest,” he told the New York Times. “But not a protest in ‘Look at how bad you’ve been to me, and I’m angry, and I’m upset.’" Rather, it’s: “I’m going to rewrite this narrative. I’m just going to take ownership of it.”  


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Published on Jul 14, 2020