Viola Davis Delivers Powerful Speech At Kerings Starry Cannes Dinner: The Power of Art is That It Knows No Color

A triumphant Viola Davis brought guests at Kering’s annual Women in Motion dinner in Cannes to their feet on Sunday with a rousing speech acknowledging her roots and personal journey to Hollywood.

“As much as I love Alexander McQueen — and I love Alexander McQueen — and the fabulous makeup,” said Davis, “I am always, always so moved when people tell me my work or my life meant something to them. But just know who I am at the end of the day is: I don’t want to leave something for people — I want to leave something in people.”

Davis was speaking on stage at Kering’s annual dinner at the Cannes Film Festival, where she was the night’s honoree. Surrounded by a starry display of the French festival’s biggest names, like Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux and Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault, Davis received a rapturous standing ovation after delivering a powerful speech about creating change through her work.

“The power of art is that it knows no color,” Davis said.

Kering — the French-based luxury goods corporation, which owns McQueen, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent — has been throwing its intimate Women In Motion dinner at the Cannes Film Festival since 2015 when the program was launched to shine a light on women’s contributions to the motion picture arts, both in front of and behind the camera. The program sponsors talks with female filmmakers, producers and actors during the festival, hosted in partnership with Variety. (Earlier at Cannes, Davis sat down for an impactful talk about her work to drive more inclusion in Hollywood.)

“Gender equality is at the core of Kering,” said Pinault at the Sunday night affair.

Davis was honored with the Women in Motion Award, which honors iconic and inspirational figures from the world of cinema. Previous honorees include Jane Fonda, Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Isabelle Huppert, Patty Jenkins, Gong Li and Salma Hayek, who is married to Pinault.

“I want my ceiling to be someone else’s floor,” Davis said during her remarks at the glitzy dinner, where she spoke about being a “chocolate girl” who endured trauma as a child. “I always wanted my life to matter. I always wanted to leave this earth and leave a big fat hole in hit,” the Oscar winner said. “But, now that I’ve progressed in my career, what I’ve realized is I want to elevate storytelling for people of color.”

Davis said that watching Cicely Tyson on screen when she was growing up was hugely impactful. But, she said, “It is just as impactful when I don’t see us.” Davis then spoke about the lack of roles for women of color and the tired tropes in which actors of color are cast like “bus drivers, or women who live in challenging communities and have one of two scenes in a movie, or being a best friend to our white female counterparts.”

Davis was joined by her husband and producing partner Julius Tennon at the event. The duo spoke to Variety on the red carpet, ahead of the dinner. “She is just real,” Tennon said of his wife. “She always speaks her mind; she is very focused on what she’s doing, and loving.”

When she first took the stage, Davis quipped, “I would say your last names, but my French isn’t very good,” when thanking Pinault and Frémaux, who honored her in their opening remarks.

Pinault also honored the women of Ukraine when he addressed the star-studded room. “They are fighting for their family, fighting for their friends,” he said. “We do not forget them.”

As part of the presentation, Pinault also gave the company’s Young Talent Award to “Pleasure” director Ninja Thyberg, whose 2013 short film “Pleasure” was presented as part of Cannes’ Critics’ Week section.

The short was then expanded into her first feature, of the same title, which was chosen for the Cannes official selection in 2020. The provocative film about the porn industry screened in 2021 at Sundance, and was picked up by “Parasite” distributor Neon in October.

Addressing the star-studded audience, Thyberg said she told everyone for seven years that she would make a film that would premiere in Cannes, and how bittersweet it was when she was accepted in 2020, only to have the festival canceled due to COVID.

“I am here because so many women before me fought for our voices in film,” said Thyberg. “A lot of those women who fought so hard never got that opportunity. I am so honored and happy that I’m able to pass this on.”

The event was held at the Place de la Castre in Cannes — a historic castle atop a hill overlooking Cannes. With views of the French Riviera and lights twinkling as the sun set over the red carpet, around 250 guests were seated at the exclusive soireé where chilled champagne was flowing and servers passed around elegant bites of floral-adorned, decadent food.

Other attendees included actors Isabelle Huppert, Rossy de Palma, Letitia Wright, Riz Ahmed, Edgar Ramirez and Paul Mescal; director Paolo Sorrentino; Warner Bros. Pictures chairman Toby Emmerich; and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, the musician Carla Bruni.

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