It’s rare to come across an actor who dominates the stage and screen as well and as consistently as Viola Davis. The Emmy, Oscar, and two-time Tony award-winning actress was born on a former slave plantation in South Carolina and grew up in abject poverty in Rhode Island. On an episode of Sunday Sitdown with Willie Geist, she explained that while her life may seem glamorous now, there was certainly nothing glamorous about it back then. Her family didn’t have a phone or hot water, and mostly traveled on foot. She spent her childhood living in condemned houses and rat-infested apartments, and was filled with both a literal and metaphorical hunger, the latter of which continues to fuel her to this day.
Around age 8 is when she first laid eyes on the legendary and trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson, whom Davis couldn’t believe looked like her. Despite the horrific living conditions, Davis and her sisters embraced their creativity, writing and performing skits and acting in plays everywhere from church basements to basketball courts. She started to seriously pursue her craft in high school, where she won a scholarship to the Young People’s School of the Performing Arts, and later got accepted into Juilliard. Through her breathtaking performances as a serial killer on an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, her minor yet substantial role in Doubt, to her commanding and starring role in the crime series How to Get Away with Murder and nowThe Woman King, Davis continues to prove that she’s one of the strongest and most reliable performers working today.
Let’s take a look at some of Viola Davis’ best performances, shall we?
Mrs. Miller, Doubt (2008)
Davis plays a small, but critical role in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, which follows Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the intense principal of a conservative Catholic elementary school who begins to suspect that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the warm and charming priest at the school, might be engaging in an inappropriate relationship with Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), an altar boy and the school’s first black student. Davis is only featured toward the end of the film, when Sister Aloysius tells her that she’s concerned for her son Donald’s well-being. In just a handful of scenes (and without giving pertinent plot details away), Davis showcases an impressive range of emotions that not many actors are able to pull off. She’s frightened, isolated, and desperate for her son’s happiness, no matter the cost. Her Oscar-nominated performance turned the movie on its head and will leave you questioning where your allegiances lie.
Aibileen Clark, The Help (2011)
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name and adapted for the screen by Tate Taylor, The Help is a detailed examination of the civil rights movement in 1960s Mississippi as seen through the eyes of the Black maids who, in addition to raising the children and managing the homes of the wealthy white families they work for, are subjected to worsening discrimination and racism. Davis plays maid Aibileen Clark, a strong, closed-off, yet motherly woman who leaves a significant impact on the little girl she raised (as well as her bigoted mother) and Skeeter (Emma Stone), the young writer interviewing maids in an attempt to expose their harsh treatment and share their life stories. Davis’ Oscar-nominated performance is filled with heartbreaking restraint, making the moments she opens up about her traumatic experiences with motherhood, or lets loose with Octavia Spencer’s unfiltered Minny, all the more rewarding.
Abby Black, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)
Released a decade after the most horrific terrorist attack on the United States, the beautiful moving drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close follows Oscar Schell (Thomas Horn), an autistic, adventurous young boy determined to decode a message left behind by his father (Tom Hanks) who died in the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Noticing the name “Black” on an envelope, Oscar sets out to meet everyone with that name to try to solve his father’s puzzle. Oscar first meets Abby (Davis), a depressed woman searching for answers of her own. Davis conveys the same sadness, loss, and uncertainty that Oscar struggles to articulate in just a few facial expressions, leaving Oscar (and the audience) wanting more.
Nancy Birch, Prisoners (2013)
There aren’t many films that so effortlessly and authentically portray fear, anger, and mystery quite as well as Prisoners. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Aaron Guzikowski, this high-stakes thriller follows the disappearance of two young girls on Thanksgiving and their parents’ brutal journey to bring them back home alive. Davis plays Nancy Birch, one of the mothers of the missing children whose vulnerability and desperation increases with every second her daughter isn’t found. In one of the most unpredictable and gut-wrenching scenes of the film, Nancy comes face to face with the alleged kidnapper. Davis coats her performance of a helpless mother in a thick layer of humanity when she tries to relate to and reason with the man behind the mysterious crime.
Annalise Keating, How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2020)
Created by Peter Nowalk and produced by Shonda Rhimes, the legal thriller series How to Get Away with Murder (aside from being an unfortunate title to Google search), stars Davis as Annalise Keating, a brutally strict law professor who applies her real-life experiences as a criminal defense attorney to her work in the classroom. Her hard exterior is due to her traumatic past, and the students learn that the most respected and feared woman on campus might not be the trustworthy and honorable professor she claims to be. Davis carries the series from start to finish, staying true to the harsh character we meet on the first day of class while layering in unexpected moments of fragility and compassion. She won an Emmy and a SAG award for her performance.
Susie Brown, Get on Up (2014)
Directed by Tate Taylor and written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, the 2014 funk-filled biopic Get on Up follows the tumultuous upbringing and rise to fame of legendary performer James Brown (Chadwick Boseman). Boseman’s electric, high-energy performances in the film understandably take center stage, but it’s Davis’ raw performance as his abused and lonely mother that deserves the spotlight. The non-linear storytelling gives the audience flashes of Brown’s haunting childhood, and features Davis as his desperate mother struggling to balance her sanity and safety with the responsibilities that come with raising a child. Davis handles Susie’s controversial and life-altering decision with delicacy, leaving you to wonder if it did more harm than good.
Rose Maxson, Fences (2016)
Fences is a story about coming to terms with your past and wondering what could have been. Directed by Denzel Washington and adapted for the screen by August Wilson (who also wrote the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name), this period drama follows the life of 1950s trash collector and dreamer Troy Maxson (Washington) as he struggles to support his wife Rose (Davis) and the rest of his family on a working class wage. Though Troy is the one filled with regret, Rose carries his lifelong burden on her resilient shoulders in an effort to keep the family together. Davis strikes a brilliant balance of devoted and trusting wife with that of an emotionally broken woman who has a firm grip on her grim reality. Davis starred alongside Washington in the 2010 Broadway revival, winning both a Tony and Oscar for her performances as the tortured and loyal Rose.
Veronica Rawlings, Widows (2018)
They left behind a mess, now it’s time for the widows to clean it up. Directed by Steve McQueen and based on the 1983 British series of the same name created by Lynda La Plante, Widows tells the story of four Chicago women who reluctantly band together to pay the debt their corrupt husbands left behind. In this BAFTA nominated performance, Davis plays the headstrong leader Veronica who pulls the other widows out from their uniquely unstable lives in order to finish what her husband started. Davis combines her conviction and heartbreak with a don’t-mess-with-me attitude that keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.
Miss Rayleen, Troop Zero (2019)
The family dramedy Troop Zero is a heartwarming adventure that emphasizes the power of acceptance. Written by Lucy Alibar and directed by the British creative duo Bert and Bertie (who also worked on the Marvel series Hawkeye), this movie tells the tale of plucky misfit Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) who enlists other children in her rural town of Wiggly, Georgia to form a Birdie Troop in an effort to win the chance to have her voice sent to space and be heard by aliens. Davis plays Miss Rayleen, the unenthusiastic secretary of Christmas’ father Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan), who works out of his trailer. She reluctantly takes on the role of troop leader and corrals the group of outcasts and attempts to help them each earn a badge. The more time Miss Rayleen spends with the routinely bullied children, the more she sees herself in them. Davis’ stern yet loving mentor has the most rewarding arcs in the film, and inspires people to persevere and stay true to themselves.
Ma Rainey, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
The Oscar-nominated music period drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom examines the world of blues, religion, and race over the course of one heated afternoon. Directed by George C. Wolfe and based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, the film follows influential blues singer Ma Rainey (Davis) and her contentious interactions with experienced members of a jazz band during a recording session in 1927 Chicago. Davis physically and emotionally transformed into the robust, unapologetic, and respected singer with ease. Ma Rainey doesn’t refrain from speaking her truth very often, which in turn amplifies the moments she chooses to stay quiet. With one look or pause in her speech, you’ll quickly be able to identify what she wants–or more importantly, doesn’t want–to hear. Get Ma Rainey a cold Coca-Cola, will you please?
Liz Ingram, The Unforgivable (2021)
Have you ever done something that can never be forgiven? Directed by Nora Fingscheidt and based on Sally Wainwright’s British limited series Unforgiven, The Unforgivable follows Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock), a damaged woman recently released from prison after serving two decades for murdering a cop who tried to evict her and her little sister from their home. As an attempt to reckon with her past, Ruth visits the old home, which is now owned by John (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Liz Ingram (Davis). Liz has far less patience than John, who wants to help Ruth find closure, and berates Ruth to get off of her property. Though Ruth’s first interaction with Liz is rife with animosity, Liz learns about Ruth’s twisted past and ends up morphing into the most understanding individual in her life. Davis’ authentic performance reminds us of the power of acceptance.