WCW: Viola Davis


Viola Davis is such a bad-ass, and we’ve been lucky that she’s graced us with a few fine frock flick performances. Growing up poor, often without food, she’s made a name for herself in TV and film playing strong, fascinating characters. Now she’s the first African-American to earn Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy Award, and a Tony Award, and all but the Emmy were for historical costume dramas. She’s also won an Oscar, so if she manages to fit a Grammy in there she could be one of the rare EGOTs too. Recently, Davis has been lauded for her performance as the legendary blues singer in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, earning a Golden Globe award, Screen Actors Guild award, NAACP Image award, and nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.



Sybil in Far From Heaven (2002)

Viola Davis - Far From Heaven (2002)

This was part of Davis’ breakout year in film, but still playing housekeeper to the main character & only hinting at her own rich life offscreen.

Talking to the Dallas Voice about the LGBTQ plot of this movie, Viola Davis said she loved the movie and felt it was a step forward for her and representation:

“I mean, the role was a maid. I’m done with the maids. But that was in the beginning of my career. I wasn’t really awoke then – not as awoken as I am. … I never thought that I had any power. I was just happy to have a job. But I think it’s important to be seen, it’s important to see your own images on the screen — and in a way that is honest.”



Mrs. Miller in Doubt (2008)

Viola Davis - Doubt (2008)

As the mother of a boy at parochial school, she gives a powerful performance with Meryl Streep in a few short scenes.

Talking to Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross about this movie, Viola Davis said:

“When I first saw the cut, I remember I went back to my house and laid in bed for two weeks until my husband finally said, ‘V, you gotta get up.’ Doing that [crying] scene [with Meryl Streep in Doubt], it’s two people in absolute conflict. You’re not so aware of what you look like until the scene is done — it’s just two pit bulls in conflict with each other.”



Aibileen Clark in The Help (2011)

Viola Davis - The Help (2011)

In several interviews Davis has said she regrets her role in this film, and in Vanity Fair, she explained:

“Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity. They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but … it’s catering to the white audience. The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. Then they leave the movie theater and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were.”



Susie Brown Get on Up (2014)

2014 Get On Up

She plays James Brown’s mother in the 1930s.

This was the first time Davis worked with Chadwick Boseman, and she said to Cinemablend after he died:

“I played his mom, so I was always calling him my baby. I always sort of saw him like that. I probably would not have said that to him because he may have cringed. To work with Chadwick is to be in the presence of greatness, really. And I actually don’t see him tragically — I know he lost his life at 43 — because of what he did with the time he had.”

2014 Get On Up



Rose Maxson in Fences (2016)

Viola Davis - Fences (2016)

Davis won a Tony award on Broadway for this role.

Talking to NPR’s All Things Considered, Viola Davis said of her character:

“I just really wanted to create a portrait of a woman. … You see age has affected her, but you still see the smile; you see a little bit of the lipstick; you see a woman who is not downtrodden. It was very important for me to create an entire and specific portrait of a woman, so by the time everything is taken away, it really is taken away. You really feel the trauma … and I could have only gotten to that level if I would have had something to lose.”

Viola Davis - Fences (2016)



Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020) Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

In an interview with AARP, Viola Davis said about Ma Rainey and why she took this role:

“She was unapologetic about her sexuality, unapologetic in terms of her value as a recording artist and in terms of what she wanted, unapologetic about her blackness. I think today she would actually be considered a liberated woman in every way, a woman before her time — and that sometimes is a really slippery slope. You’re fighting a culture that devalues you, although in your heart and in your spirit, you know your worth.”



Upcoming Roles:

Michelle Obama in The First Lady

While way too modern for us to review, it’ll still be interesting to watch Davis portray this living First Lady in an upcoming anthology TV series.

Nanisca in The Woman King

Davis is the lead character and a producer on this story of an all-female military unit in the Kingdom of Dahomey, which was one of the most powerful African states during the 18th and 19th centuries. I CAN’T WAIT!!!



What’s your favorite of Viola Davis’ historical costume movie roles?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

9 Responses

  1. throckmortonk

    She always turns in a solid performance, and in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with great material and a cast that was at her level, she was absolutely perfect and peerless.

  2. Carrie

    Such an incredible actress and gorgeous, to boot. I’m so glad she has been able to move beyond maid/ servant roles. I have to say, though, despite the weaknesses of the character/ script in “The Help”, her performance did move me: the empty look in her eyes when she talked about the death of her son, masking bottomless sorrow; the ambivalence she expressed when she was fired from caring for the chubby little white toddler who loved her as a mother. She was the true protagonist of that movie. Viola just elevates whatever she shows up in.

    • Melanie

      I agree about The Help. I understand why she regrets it, but she made me cry within 30 seconds of that movie starting, just with her expression. I’d seen Doubt and was blown away by her performance, but The Help made me a fan for life. There were layers to her character that, I think were eclipsed by the main plot–her untapped writing talent, her grief over her son, the grief of loving a child and yet not having authority to raise her in a healthy way (parallels to Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey). So much more interesting than Skeeter’s journey. Aibileen was the heart and soul of both the film and the book. But of course, I’m part of the white audience for the white author, so I’m sure there are nuances that I miss.

  3. Nzie

    She’s an incredible actress and a very worthy pick for WCW. It’s unfortunate that she probably hasn’t had all the opportunities she deserved, but her talent shines through everything she has done.

  4. Natasha Rubin

    YESSSSSS, she’s fantastic! Not just one of the best historical actresses working right now (which she unquestionably is), but one of the best actresses, period.

    I’m really looking forward to watching The First Lady when it comes out. And while the Michelle Obama parts will be too modern for this site, they’re also covering Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford, so those sections could be relevant to this site!

  5. Lily Lotus Rose

    For me her best costume roles would be from The Help and Get On Up. I LOATHE the play Fences so I never saw the movie even though she and Denzel Washington are excellent actors.

  6. M.E. Lawrence

    Davis as MRO?! I love this idea. Like most First Ladies, Michelle Obama was obliged to play down her natural forcefulness during the White House years, and Viola Davis is so good at conveying ambivalence.