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ACTOR RANKED: Viola Davis

Viola Davis' career is one of frustration. She is one of the most seasoned and talented actresses of her generation, making her tv and film debuts in 1996 and working consistently in film and television ever since. Yet for much of that time she somehow has not been given adequate opportunities outside of the stereotypical roles afforded to black women in the industry. She's been the maid, the counselor, the best friend, the assistant, the angry woman bent on revenge, and more. You name it and she's done it. Many of these roles have even made her a magical negro, a black character type whose only purpose is to better, or save, a white character, often at their own expense.…

  • Fences

    1.Fences

    ★★★★½

    With a leading star as robust as Denzel Washington also at the helm as director, its easy to assume who might be stealing all of the scenes in Fences, but you might be assuming wrong. Viola Davis is the glue holding all of the various pieces of this film together. She so effortlessly and naturally supports everyone throughout that you barely notice how much of a stone column she is until she takes just a moment to become a monument. This is a tough performance.

  • The Help

    2.The Help

    ★★★★

    Its rather odd that roles in which they play a slave or servant overcoming their trying times seems to be the gateway for black actresses to be seen by larger audiences. The Help is indeed the role that began to make Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer for that matter, a household name despite both having long standing careers well before this film's debut. While Spencer's character is most memorable here, Davis is a visual wonder, letting much of her performance be told through a great physicality that makes it all the more powerful by either emphasizing or even contradicting the lines that are being delivered. Hopefully, neither of these fine actresses will be remember solely, or mostly, for their supporting service roles here.

  • Doubt

    3.Doubt

    ★★★★½

    Long before The Help made her a household name, Viola Davis showed herself as one of the most capable actors of her generation by appearing alongside and holding her own against the extraordinary Meryl Streep. Even with powerhouse performances from Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman here, Davis' limited screen time is integral and stands out for its complexity and for her masterwork of emotions. Plus, her signature snot makes an appearance too.

  • Widows

    4.Widows

    ★★★½

    Though reminiscent of her earlier revenge film Lila & Eve, Widows presents a role for Davis that is much ballsier than her usual fare. As the self-made leader of a group of widows put into a hard place, not only does Davis get to deliver the drama she’s known for, leading an all star cast of good performances, but now we get to see her tough as nails in battle too, entangled in a heist of large proportions and balancing a large complexity of emotions because of it all. It’s a dark and moody crime thriller that Viola Davis is perfectly suited for.

  • Solaris

    5.Solaris

    ★★★★

    Soderbergh’s Solaris is a compelling remake and alteration of one of the most revered science fictions films in the history of cinema, Tarkovsky’s 1972 film of the same name. With a minimal main cast, most of which giving memorable performances, Davis shines as a possible voice of reason and a woman always on the verge. Sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt, she manages to find the balance to make the character believeable in an extraordinary situation, while still keeping her secretive and mysterious, in turn keeping the audience wondering just what her role in this situation really is.

  • Lila & Eve

    6.Lila & Eve

    ★★★

    In many ways melodramatic, stereotypical, and certainly predictable, Lila & Eve often feels more like a long episode of a television crime drama. It is a Lifetime production sent to the big screen, after all. Yet, Viola Davis brings realism to a character arch that could easily have fallen short. Her subtle, natural tendencies move the character's choices from outrageous to understandable and relatable. This would be an easily overlooked film if not for Davis' casting, which somehow still manages to pull a brief emotional moment by the film's end.

  • World Trade Center

    7.World Trade Center

    ★★½

    Viola Davis appears in World Trade Center for only a couple of minutes, but it is her single short scene of just a few lines that embodies the emotions of this real life catastrophe more than anything else. The film feels tight and stilted until her appearance, but it is she that allows a release, a flow and a momentary gasping of air while also being heartbreaking.

  • Get on Up

    8.Get on Up

    ★★★

    Get on Up has a wild ambience thanks to its story and editing jumping around and the general wild persona that the film is based upon. Thank goodness Viola Davis shows up early on as James Brown's mother to add an element of realism that shows that this larger than life story came from harsh and humble beginnings, and is always able to immediately bring him, and the story itself, back down to earth. Without her short but memorable bookend appearances, this film might have been lost in some of the over the top caricatures elsewhere in the film.

  • Suicide Squad

    9.Suicide Squad

    ★★

    There is more than capable talent within Suicide Squad. It's unfortunate that they either weren't given a meaty role to sink their teeth into or they were but that role was cut to bits during the very apparent editing hack job. Especially with such wild and flamboyant characters, Viola Davis' Amanda Waller should be the grounding point for this team of misfits, and though there are quick glimpses of how badass the character is supposed to be, she really serves more as a plot device than anything else.

  • Beautiful Creatures

    10.Beautiful Creatures

    ★★

    The notes for this film reportedly contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

    There are a couple of great talents present on the sidelines of Beautiful Creatures who do not get proper material to work with, but Viola Davis is probably shorted the worse here as she is a literal magical negro. While the character has technically, and thankfully, been slightly changed from the book where she was a maid, her presence still comes across as that of the help, and Davis doesn't get a true moment to shine. She is, at least, still essential to the film and somehow does not need to die in order to show her importance in this specific example of the magical negro trope.

  • Out of Sight

    11.Out of Sight

    ★★★½

    Just two years after her first film, Davis' big breakout role came in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, immediately putting her into the upper echelons of actors with alongside big stars like George Clooney. It's a scene that lasts barely minutes in a film that is over two hours long, but Davis certainly made her mark. The on screen chemistry that she and Jennifer Lopez showed no doubt translated into the later film Lila and Eve, and Soderbergh saw enough to continue casting her in his work.

  • Eat Pray Love

    12.Eat Pray Love

    ★★½

    Here Davis plays Delia, a good friend but really an assistant to Julia Robert’s lead Liz. Every line she delivers is specifically to help Liz figure things out in her work or in her general life, to provide something to think about, and/or to give Liz’s monologues texture with a reverb here and there. Aside from the fact that she is a new mom, there is absolutely no character development to Delia in the few scenes in which she appears, and yet she feels integral to developing someone else. It should be noted that the entire film in fact caters to Liz in this way, but even more so for Delia than some of the other characters. It’s always unfortunate to not allow Viola Davis to give her full potential.

  • Trust

    13.Trust

    ★★★

    The notes for this film reportedly contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

    As a hospital counselor, Davis is the pure voice of reason in Trust and integrel to growth and some understanding within the film. While all of the other characters are spiraling out in their own directions, Davis is the calm voice that tries to bring some sense to it all. Despite, yet again, only being in a few short and honestly badly lit scenes, it is Davis whose shoulders the family leans on as troubles escalate, helping to bring revelation and realization.

  • Law Abiding Citizen

    14.Law Abiding Citizen

    ★★½

    For a long time, Davis has been cast in side roles as characters that only show up in a handful of scenes, at best, and yet she is always a large presence, no matter how little screen time she is given. In a film that tries it’s hardest to be grounded but is ridiculous on a number of levels, she steps in about halfway through to show some rastionality, and to strengthen our lead. Viola Davis’ best role is really as the backbone holding together every story she’s in.

  • The Shrink Is In

    15.The Shrink Is In

    The Shrink Is In is all over the place with it's comedy and heavily dated in every aspect including some problematic story elements. There is just so much wrong to begin with here that none of it's cast could save it despite their talent. Viola Davis does the best she can with the small material she's been given to work with as the best friend and voice of reason. She does show up more often than in Eat Pray Love, a more serious version of the same general premise of a white woman finding herself while helping others, with Davis in practically the same side role. At least she does call out the main character's privilege in taking advantage of others here.

  • Disturbia

    16.Disturbia

    ★★½

    This charlatan of Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a bit forgettable. As such, Davis’ small role as an officer is also rather forgettable as she barely appears on screen at all. Davis definitely has quantity covered in her career. The number of mediocre movies that she’s been given cameos in because she was not yet a name is astounding. But she always also has quality covered. Just let this light shine already!