Feminist Hero Friday: Viola Davis
by Abaki Beck
After winning an Oscar for her stunning role as Rose Maxson in Fences last Sunday, Viola Davis became the first black woman to receive the Triple Crown of Acting - winning a competitive Emmy, Tony, and Academy Award. She won a Tony for the same role in the Broadway version of Fences and an Emmy for her role as Annalise Keating in How To Get Away with Murder. (It should be noted that Whoopi Goldberg has also won all three awards, but her Tony is for producing, not acting.) This Friday, we celebrate the brilliant and talented Viola Davis as our Feminist Hero.
Davis was born on a former slave plantation in South Carolina but grew up Rhode Island, where her parents struggled to make ends meet. Her family lived in deep poverty, and she experienced hunger, racism, and household violence as a child, due to her father’s alcoholism. In an interview with People Magazine she reflected on her childhood:
“It became motivation as opposed to something else — the thing about poverty is that it starts affecting your mind and your spirit because people don’t see you...I chose from a very young age that I didn’t want that for my life. And it very much has helped me appreciate and value the things that are in my life now because I never had it. A yard, a house, great plumbing, a full refrigerator, things that people take for granted, I don’t.”
Davis was talented and engaged in the arts from a young age; she attended an acting class as part of Upward Bound (a federal program that prepares lower income students for college), attended a performing arts high school where she was voted most talented student, and went on to study theater at Rhode Island University before enrolling at the prestigious Juilliard School.
She rose to fame in 40s, after having spent decades acting in theater and smaller tv and movie roles. She has noted that colorism and racism continue to plague the entertainment industry, saying in an interview with The New Yorker: “I’ve played many best friends, crack-addicted mothers, next-door neighbors, or professionals with no personal lives...There’s a limitation to how we are seen.” Many of her earlier roles, she has noted, did not have depth or storylines beyond being a plot device. Despite this, she has starred in diverse roles, including her Oscar-nominated performances in Doubt (2008) and The Help (2012). In 2014, she began her role as Annalise Keating on ABC’s acclaimed show How to Get Away With Murder. In this show, Davis plays a tough and brilliant (and middle aged) professor, but this potentially one-dimensional harshness is balanced with raw, emotional scenes: taking off her wig and makeup, reflecting on her violent childhood, or crying in her mother’s arms. Keating is nuanced, flawed, and deeply intriguing. Davis won an Emmy for this role.
Most recently, she starred alongside Denzel Washington in Fences, the screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play. They both starred in the play six years ago. Until now, there has never been a screen adaptation of the play; August Wilson insisted he would only support it being made to film if the director was black. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Davis plays Rose Maxson, the wife of Troy Maxson, a depressed sanitation worker who formerly played in the Negro Leagues but was too old by the time the Major Leagues racially integrated, a truth that haunts him. He takes out his anger and emotional repression on her and his sons; his emotional pain deeply impacts the whole family. Throughout the play, we see Rose transform, from trying to hold her marriage together to recognizing what she has lost by doing so. She transforms from a loving, obedient wife to a woman owning her rage and shame at her husband’s betrayal, after he cheats on her and his mistress becomes pregnant. Davis has played a range of characters in Wilson’s plays, all with unique personalities. Davis noted of Wilson’s work in an NPR interview:
“To me August honors those men that people just never even talk about; men in history that were invisible. Men like my dad, who was a groom on the race track and born in 1936, had a fifth-grade education. And his only dreams were us, his kids. And he honors him in these plays, and I love that.”
Viola Davis is an outstanding actress. The characters she chooses to portray are complex, nuanced representations of women of color, and she plays each role with vigor. Beyond acting, her and her husband run JuVee Productions, a multimedia production company founded to empower black artists and diverse stories. She says of her work: “I just want different narratives for people of color, especially women of color...I don’t want us to be put in a box. I want it to be kind of a redefinition of who were are. If I can even achieve that in a tiny way, I’ll be good. I’ll be good.” This Friday, we celebrate Davis’ theatrical talent, as well as her commitment to empowering stories of all people of color - those forgotten, those complex, those powerful.