My first run in with the force that is Viola Davis was in the Academy Award nominated 2011 picture The Help. I was a 13-year-old cinephile who was consuming films at a rate that was admittedly becoming rather numbing. I loved picking apart scripts, watching directors work, falling in love with scores, stories, cinematography, everything. Cinema was and is my most important and effective coping mechanism and even at such a young age, I was pretty sure I knew more about it than most adults could ever hope to. But I remember, after watching Viola embody the role of a woman who’s kindness was beyond human comprehension, realising I knew absolutely nothing at all about what it takes to not just tell a story, but to convince people of one. And ever since, all Viola Davis has ever done is convince me.
The Help was full of exceptional performances from both the incredible Octavia Spencer & talented Emma Stone who both navigate the difficulty of the subject with formidable skill. But Viola? My word. As How To Get Away With Murder came to a close this weekend, the final monologue she delivered in the courtroom as her closing argument for what has to be the most ludicrous and anxiety-inducing case I’ve ever seen on TV, taking me back to the indescribable feeling I got after watching The Help. Viola has this unique ability to tug at your heart strings with her tone alone. She has a way of baring a character's soul to the audience in a way that almost feels like an invasion of privacy. In all her prominent roles (Suicide Squad never happened, we don’t know her) you didn’t need anyone else to explain what the character was feeling because her body language, facial expressions and trusted snot bubble did all the talking for you.
As the rollercoaster that was the HTGAWM finale drew closer, I was suddenly hit with the gravity of Viola’s performance as Annalise Keating for the past 6 years. A dark skinned 52-year-old bisexual black woman was the lead character on primetime television and nothing about her was half-arsed; she was an incredible experience. She was intensely intelligent, cutthroat, sexually fluid, annoying, funny & really bloody good at her job. Her character went through an unnecessary amount & it did irk me at times to see a black woman experience every possible bad thing a woman could experience in this life without dying because let’s face it, if Annalise was white they would have said enough much earlier.
However, Viola brings Annalise to life with a realism that has all these experiences fitting into her persona seamlessly, allowing the audience to understand and almost justify a lot of her actions towards the people around her. Someone who went through as much as Anna Mae had was obviously going to be stuck between escapism and survival and Viola ensured we felt the depths of what she had suffered in her life.
How you feel about the show itself is another discussion to be had, I mean I won’t sit here and act like it didn’t get tedious when Bonnie murdered someone unprovoked again or Michaela turned around and blamed Annalise for an unfortunate event she wasn’t even present for. The writers got away with themselves to say the least and as much as I do think it ended as a good show, it started as an excellent one. So, the storyline definitely lost its way a little bit and the decline was unfortunate. But Viola Davis never let this affect her performance once. She meanders through Annalise’s turmoil with such commitment. From the never ending cycle of grief, abuse, depression and alcoholism Annalise battled every struggle in a three-dimensional way that often superseded the scope of the script.
After the first season of HTGAWM in 2014, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. She then proceeded to become the first black thespian to receive the Triple Crown of Acting in 2016, after winning an Academy Award for her sensational performance as Rose Maxson alongside Denzel Washington in the film adaptation of ‘Fences’. She had also won her second Tony in 2010 for the same role.
Albeit, being one of the few black women in the craft to actually get the recognition for their exemplary work (coughs in Angela Bassett & Regina King to name a few), Viola has received her deserved accolades for her talent but I want it to be more than the plethora of awards she has and will continue to receive. For us black women who want to tell stories both in front of and behind the camera, Viola Davis (as well as the names mentioned earlier) is one of the most important blueprints for the level of skill we should aspire to. Her consistency, grace and expertise are all worth emulating but above all just like Maya Angelou admonished, she tells the truth. It’s much easier to convince people when you’re telling the truth.