A reigning Queen of the Silver Screen, Viola Davis is a titan of acting who shows us time and time again that she really is among the best of the best. She is also the first black actress to receive the Triple Crown of Acting. She is renowned for her grace and poise, she fights for what she believes in and only takes on roles that she wants. She is an icon in a number of different ways but for me, it is her passion for acting and determination to get to the heart of her characters that really stands out for me. You can tell that she truly loves what she does and that she puts herself into the characters whether it be an FBI agent in Suicide Squad, the mother of a missing child in Prisoners or a woman broken by a society that cripples her family because of the colour of their skin in Fences. I can’t even begin to say how much I love VIola Davis as an actress and activist
As ever, these posts delve into film performances so even though her inputs in projects such as the TV series How to Get Away With Murder are incredible, they won’t be added in the list. This also makes it a bit easier when picking the performances for my list.
Here are my top 5 performances in chronological order:
The breakthrough performance that cemented Davis’ career onscreen, Doubt is a star-studded film that features iconic stars Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who all received Oscar nominations for their performances. Following Sister Aloysius (Streep) and Sister James (Adams) as they plot to bring down Father Flynn (Hoffman) who is suspected of molesting the school’s first black student. What was the most heartwrenching scene to come from this film was the performance from Viola Davis, an actress who had made her name on TV and the stage but had not broken into the film industry just yet. Her performance as Mrs. Miller, the mother of the abused child, is small but captivating as she struggles with the truth and her faith. It’s a pained performance that holds its ground against three of the best actors in modern times. Davis’ character admits that she would overlook the abuse if it meant that her son could still attend the school and escape from the socioeconomic background that he would be subjected to were he not attending. In one scene she becomes a parent torn by the abuse of secular and religious authorities. She knows that it is a world where they cannot win without suffering and the heartbreak of that realisation sits with you for the duration of the film.
The Help (2011)
Now for the film that solidified Davis as a leading star and should have won her an Academy Award (let’s not even get into that one). I am aware that The Help is a controversial film to put in here and it is completely understandable. The film sadly follows white saviour tropes as Emma Stone’s character, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, helps to expose the abuse that the black maids in Jackson have received. The maids that she initially speak to are Aibileen Clark (Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) who both provide brilliant performances. I know that sadly these kinds of roles feed into prejudice perceptions of non-white actors who are often delegated to subservient characters. I remember watching this film for the first time and absolutely loving the characters and how much they fight back. The film definitely has its flaws but both Davis and Spencer shine and earn their acclaim. Both characters are brilliantly developed and the scenes with the two of them in are fantastic. Davis has such a presence and says so much with a facial expression. Her performance as Aibileen is a masterclass of acting and only serves as a small step in a huge career.
This may be an unexpected inclusion into the list but I enjoyed this film a lot. Serving as Denis Villeneuve’s English-language debut, I went into thinking it would be a typical action drama but it was so much more than that. Davis plays Nancy Birch, a woman who’s daughter is kidnapped with her best friend. It’s a film that plays out every parent’s worst nightmare and the lengths one will go to to bring back their child. Davis is maternal, fierce and conflicted when Kevin Dover (Hugh Jackman) who’s daughter also went missing finds a suspect, locks him up and begins to beat him. Nancy is a character who refuses to play by others’ rules and does what feels right to her. Although this is a supporting role, Davis still maintains that strong presence onscreen and brings her A-game in a cast that includes Jackman, Terrence Howard and Jake Gyllenhaal to name a few. Much like the conflict Davis brought in Doubt, it’s hard not to feel affected by her performance. Whereas Jackman and Gyllenhaal fit a traditional “masculine” trope, Davis is the maternal heart but brings a strength that is not often given to women in thrillers. Her involvement shows her desire to work with respected directors and actors and also shows her perseverance to choose roles that help progress to women’s roles in films.
The one that brought her all the gongs, Fences is an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1985 play of the same name and directed by her co-star, Denzel Washington, who also brings a career best. Washington refused to divert from WIlson’s script meaning that Wilson is credited as screenwriter and received a posthumous Oscar nomination. Admittedly, Washington’s reluctance to divert from the script does make the film feel a bit too stage-like at times but there is no doubt that this is Davis’ film. I honestly think that they should have gone for the Best Leading Actress awards and she would have won it but the Supporting seemed a “safe” category. She plays Rose Lee Maxson, a woman whose life revolves around satisfying the desires of her husband and their son whose goal is to play baseball. Living in a rundown neighbourhood in a deeply racist society where the odds are stacked against them, Rose does not give up and fights while her husband Troy Maxson delves deeper into madness in his failure to succeed in his American Dream. It’s a highly emotionally charged film that sees Davis go into a different league of acting that is rarely seen. She refuses to be put down by the men she takes care of despite their physical intimidation. Rose is another strong woman that Viola can add to her extensive repertoire.
The last blockbuster that Viola starred in saw her take the lead as Veronica Rawlings in Steve McQueen’s fourth feature, Widows which follows four women who plot to carry out a heist after three of their husbands died in a botched job. Veronica is the group leader who draws together the plan using a notebook that her late husband, Harry (Liam Neeson) left in a safety deposit box. The other three women played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Enviro and the four together have great characterisation and rapport. It’s a film built on the strength on its performers and Davis leads with ease. It’s refreshing to see such a strong action-based role which would traditionally be taken by a white male instead being portrayed by a black woman. The film is fearless and knows its strength. Veronica is one of the best female characters in recent years. She’s deeply complex as a grieving widow, a mother who’s son was wrongly murdered due to racism in authority and a woman who knows what she has to do to survive. She shields her fragility and fuels the operation with her persistence.
I am so excited to see where Viola’s career will go next. Even in films like Suicide Squad, she was a shining star to me. She’s an actress who is consistent, likeable and bankable. She is one of the key figures to pushing for more strong female characters in film and constantly talks about the importance of women in film.
What Viola Davis film is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below!