Since those historic Oscar wins for Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002, two more black men have won Best Actor Oscars – Jamie Foxx for Ray in 2005 and Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland in 2007. But a Best Actress Oscar has yet to be awarded to another black woman.
That can all change this year with Viola Davis, whose performance as Aibileen Clark in the summer hit The Help has not only garnered universal critical praise but also nominations from all three key Oscar precursors – the Critic’s Choice Award (which she won last night), the Golden Globe Award (which will be handed out on Sunday) and the Screen Actor’s Guild Award (which will be handed out on January 29).
Not only is Davis all be guaranteed a Best Actress Oscar nomination, she is actually a considered a frontrunner to win despite possible competition from the likes of Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn, Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs, Tilda Swinton for We Need to Talk About Kevin and Charlize Theron for Young Adult.
Davis previously was nominated in 2009 as Best Supporting Actress for Doubt (with Streep). A nomination for The Help would make her only the second black actress to make a return trip to the Kodak as a nominee. Whoopi Goldberg, who was nominated as Best Actress in 1986 for The Color Purple before winning in 1991 as Best Supporting Actress for Ghost, was the first. A Best Actress win would make her only the second black woman to do so (after Berry).
An able and reliable supporting player, Davis has flown under the radar for several years. It isn’t until her attention-grabbing 8-minute scene opposite Meryl Streep in 2008’s Doubt that you realize that you’ve seen her many times before.
She appeared as Antwone Fisher’s biological mother Eva May in the 2002 movie of the same that was directed by Denzel Washington. She had very few lines in her scene where Antwone (Derek Luke) sees her for the first time as an adult. Her initial shock turns into a stone-faced inability to look him in the eye while he tells her of all his accomplishments. As soon as he leaves, she cries. It was a pivotal moment in the film and an excellent performance by Davis.
That same year, she played a housekeeper opposite Julianne Moore in the 50s-era drama Far From Heaven. Again, her supporting role as Sybil is pivotal to the taboo interracial relationship that developed in the film between Moore’s Cathy Whitaker and Dennis Haysbert’s Raymond Deagan. It is Sybil’s rather belated revelation to Cathy Whitaker that the victim of a racially-motivated attack by a group of boys was Raymond’s young daughter. This revelation drives Cathy to Raymond’s house where he tells her he has to move and she, for the first time, suggests a future for them.
In 2006, Davis had a larger supporting role as Diana Barrino, the mother of American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino in Lifetime’s made-for-TV movie based on her life. Once again, her key scene was a pivotal. In that scene, Fantasia, unmarried and very pregnant, interrupts a church service to seek, and ultimately receive, forgiveness and support from her.
Even this year, while much of attention is on her leading role in The Help, Davis also has a supporting role with Jeffrey Wright in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.
No matter the role or the size of the role, Davis exhibits a quiet power that elevates every moment in which she appears. While she doesn’t dominate or upstage, she is always memorable. For that reason, she doesn’t even need to. You may not have always remembered her name, but you’ve always remembered her scenes.
In recent years, Davis has garnered the respect of her peers as well – most notably from Doubt co-star Meryl Streep at the 2009 Screen Actor’s Guild Awards. When Streep won as Best Actress for the film, she acknowledged “the giganticly gifted” Davis in her acceptance speech and exclaimed, “Someone please give her a movie!” And even at last night’s Critic’s Choice Awards, Streep was among the first to her feet upon Davis’s win.
Ironically, Streep’s wish came true in the same year that she herself is once again vying for that long-awaited third Oscar (she hasn’t won since 1982 despite 12 nominations since then).
In The Help, we finally get to see Davis’s quiet power on full display. As with many a great actress, she conveys the heart, emotion and depth of every scene in which she appears. What sets her apart is that in those showcase scenes that often generate awards attention, she achieves this without yelling, screaming or grandstanding. It’s in her face. It’s in her movements. It’s in her actions. It’s in HOW she speaks. She isn’t just delivering lines or being a character. She’s living them both.
We believed she was Antwone Fisher’s mother. Though silent and stone-faced for much of her scene, we saw the internal conflict between wanting to embrace the son she let get away years ago but yet not wanting to face him or that past. Her tears at the end were a cathartic mix of guilt, shame, pride and relief.
We believed she was Fantasia Barrino’s mother. When Fantasia interrupts the church service, we saw the surprise and confusion on her face. But when Fantasia, contrite and scared, calls out to her, she steps down from the choir stand and meets Fantasia at the front of the church. From the very way she embraced Fantasia, we could see that whatever embarrassment, pain, shame, confusion or pressure she felt surrounding her daughter’s pregnancy was being pushed aside. It didn’t matter that they were in front of the same ostracizing congregation. She was a mother and this was her child.
And we believe she is Aibileen Clark, a maid for a Southern family in the 1960s who risks her job and possibly her life to share
It’s easy, and provincial, to simply write off Aibileen Clark as just another maid. It’s easy, and provincial, to simply write off Viola Davis as just another black actress playing just another maid.
But Viola Davis is not “just another black actress” (or even just another actress for that matter) and Aibileen is not “just another maid”. Perhaps in lesser hands, this might have been the case but Davis infuses Aibileen with a quiet dignity and a strong sense of self. She doesn’t play Aibileen as a maid. What Davis shows us is a woman of a certain age living in a certain era during a certain point in time where opportunities for her are limited.
Being a maid is what Aibileen does to earn a living, but it does not define who she is. So it is not devastating to her when she loses her job at the end of the film. Granted, she’ll miss the child she had been caring for but instead of falling apart, she walks off proudly into a scary new life of possibilities. Maybe she’ll be a maid again, maybe she’ll be a writer, maybe she’ll move someplace else or maybe she’ll go to school.
At the very least, she is allowing herself to consider and maybe even pursue such options – whether they come to fruition or not. Are the chances great? No. But those chances are even lower if she doesn’t think about them at all.
And this is what a lot of people seem to be missing.
People who have written off Aibileen as the latest in an endless string of maid roles dating back to the earliest days of Hollywood need to either watch the movie again or broaden their minds. Aibileen is no stereotype. She’s a strong woman reflective of all the strong women who have not only raised their own children but also other people’s. She’s a strong woman reflective of all the strong women who utilized the circumstances of their respective eras so their children had a chance at a better life. She’s a strong woman reflective of all the strong women who continually made sacrifices so they could send their children to college. She’s a strong woman reflective of all the strong women upon whose shoulders so many generations stand.
Would it be great if Davis received such attention for playing a lawyer, a doctor, an educator or a business executive? Absolutely. And Davis has played some of those roles but they are “less explored and more of an archetype than these maids,” she said in August for an Entertainment Weekly cover story.
So instead of being criticized for choosing to play the role of a maid, Davis should be celebrated. Consider the portrayal. Consider the performance. After all it’s Oscar time and we don’t want yet another historic Oscar win marred by such controversy.
Photo taken from Entertainment Weekly's "Inside the Oscar Race" cover story. Issue #1189 - January 13, 2012