You know acclaimed actress Viola Davis for her work on the hit ABC series How to Get Away With Murder (Davis also holds the distinction of being the first Black actress to win a Tony, Oscar and an Emmy), and her unforgettable roles in award-winning films such as The Help, Doubt, Widows and Fences make her one of the most recognized players in Hollywood. In addition to being a powerhouse on the big and small screens, Davis is also a passionate humanitarian who, with her latest project, A Touch of Sugar, is bringing awareness to a disease that is close to her heart.
Davis has partnered with pharmaceutical company Merck on the documentary film for which she serves as narrator, and hopes the project, making its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, will raise awareness about the epidemic as well as inspire dialogue within communities about type 2 diabetes. Davis herself is one of 84 million American adults currently living with prediabetes. More than 30 million American adults (or 1 in 10 people) suffer from diabetes, with 90 to 95 percent of that group having type 2 diabetes. Davis has two sisters who are currently struggling with diabetes, and her great aunt passed from complications arising from type 2 diabetes. “There’s nothing harmless about diabetes,” says Davis. “It’s a chronic disease that needs to be taken seriously if we’re going to get it under control.”
BET spoke with Davis about her mission to raise awareness about the epidemic, how the disease has affected her and her family, and what she hopes people will get out of A Touch of Sugar, which is part of Merck’s program America’s Diabetes Challenge: Get to Your Goals.
BET: November is actually National Diabetes Month, but you’re getting the jump on raising awareness about this disease with your new project, A Touch of Sugar. Can you talk about how you came to be involved in the project?
Viola Davis: Well it came to me through Merck, and I love the word confronting the diabetes crisis in America. One of the reasons I decided that it would be a great thing to do is because just the sheer numbers and impact that diabetes is having on people, on families. You have 30 million who suffer from type 2 diabetes, 30 million adults, 80 million who suffer from prediabetes. My whole family — two of my sisters have type 2 diabetes, my aunt, her legs were amputated, she succumbed to the disease, my maternal grandmother, and I was diagnosed with prediabetes a year and a half ago. So, just the prevalence of it, the silence, the sort of stigma attached to it, that as soon as you get the so-called “sugar diagnosis” that you sort of do nothing. That there’s nothing out there, you sort of feel alone with it, and it’s a disease that affects every aspect of your life, so I think the time is now that we sort of blow the lid off of it, especially within our community. Our community is absolutely affected by it, and listen, I was born in the Deep South, you know, when anybody had the sugar it was like, so and so got the sugar, she got the sugar, he got the sugar, and then after that you made cornbread, you made your rice, you ate the cornstarch, you made the sugar candy by putting the Crisco in the sugar in the frying pan and putting it over the stove, waiting for it to cool down and eat, and so much of our lives has been a lack of awareness of it, so I thought it’s time.
With you being diagnosed as pre-diabetic, how have you personally had to adjust and shift what you do in your everyday life to manage this condition and take care of yourself?
I’m not gonna lie, it’s been really hard only because I do work out, I’m a workout person, I’m very conscious about what I eat. I am very, very aware of nutritional facts with everything. I think my biggest adjustment has been self-care. I got busy. I have a busy schedule. I have a daughter. What happens is you make food choices sometimes that aren’t healthy choices, like fruit, but you’re eating on a set at midnight after working 16 hours, and with me, my A1C was high. I had never heard of A1C before. I said, “What’s an A1C?” And it’s a blood test that measures your average glucose rate over the last 2-3 months. So, you take it four times a year. I went from being vigilant to hyper-vigilant knowing that I already had the genetic code for it. That’s what you have to be — you have to sort of be a warrior– strap on your sword, buckle down and do the best that you can.
What should anyone who views A Touch of Sugar take away from it in terms of education, awareness and action steps?
That’s exactly what I want them to come away with. First of all, you can go to the website, ATouchOfSugarFilm.com, and arm yourself with information. What I want people to come away with is that you can manage the disease, and live with it, and you don’t have to succumb to it. You know, with so much of, I know my people’s lives, it was succumbing to everything. You sort of just waited for the shroud of darkness to come down with everything. You just weren’t even proactive. You know, Aunt Bessie got the sugar, you know, she lost one leg, she’s probably going to lose the other one… there was no fighting it, there was no arming yourself with information. Now we know better, so we have to do better.
Did you get to meet any of the participants of the film personally, and if so, what was that experience like, hearing their stories firsthand?
You know what, I did not meet them when I narrated [the film], but I just met them… and I have to say that I was really moved by their stories. The one story that I was moved by is Shenekqual, whose 11-year-old son was affected by diabetes — he got a diabetes diagnosis — and it was only after he got his diagnosis that she decided to deal with her diabetes, and I think that’s the narrative for a lot of women, that we negate ourselves. That we’re so busy trying to be sort of wonder women, with our capes, taking care of the kids, taking care of the husband, managing that business that we have, out-stronging each other, that we sort of feel that self-care is selfish. It’s not. It’s not selfish. It’s just as important as your 18-hour day. I quoted Denzel [Washington] because I loved what he said once to me; he said, “There’s no U-haul in the back of a hearse,” and that’s how you have to see your life — that your life matters, and your health matters. There’s so much with our people that we embrace; we embrace a lot of times the bad food, the weight, the lack of exercise, and we sort of hold it as a shroud of glory. That’s what makes us Black. That’s just how we are. And I don’t know if that’s how we are, you know?
As a mom raising a young daughter [Genesis], how have you attempted to educate her on how to have a healthy relationship with food, since the rising number of childhood diabetes cases is on the rise and alarming as well?
You know what I realized? Because I don’t want to traumatize her with food. I don’t want to police her food habits. I think that that can have detrimental effects, so the biggest thing I do is try to be a great example. All of our milk is unsweetened, like unsweetened almond milk. She loves avocados, who knew? And she eats them plain. She loves salmon, but that’s only because my husband loves salmon, so there’s always salmon in the house. You know, it’s like the big thing is, the best you can give your child is a great example, and I think that’s it. You’ve got to be what you say you are, and I think that’s the best thing that’s happened with Genesis, but it’s like she’s gonna eat the banana. She’s gonna eat the candy at Halloween. And that’s the best I can do — give her a good example.
Is there any dish or food item that you have had to take off of your plate literally that you miss but that you know is in your best interest not to have?
The food that’s really hard is sushi, only because of the rice, and only because I like to eat a lot of it. That’s been really, really hard for me, very difficult.
As a mother, you know moms do so much. For those who need to step up this Mother’s Day, what advice would you give to make sure they make their moms feel appreciated and special?
Well, I’m a mother of two, so that’s like, gosh, so expansive. You know what I say to Genesis all the time? When you know you’re loved, there’s nothing that you can’t do. And one of the things I tell Genesis is that mama’s always gonna love you, that mama loves you more than the love of your life will ever love you. And there’s something about the power of a mother’s love in your life that helps you feel like you are invincible and not alone. That’s the power of a mother.
For more information about Davis’ story and A Touch of Sugar, visit ATouchOfSugarFilm.com.