There's no doubt that Viola Davis is a master working at the top of her craft. The actress has been celebrated for her work on the big screen, the small screen, and onstage and is only a Grammy Award away from EGOTing. (She's won the Emmy, Oscar and Tony.) And she's blazed her own trail doing so — in 2015, she became the first Black woman to win the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama for her work on How to Get Away With Murder.
Over her 30-year acting career, Davis has played every sort of role in every sort of genre, and her latest movies are no exception: This month, she toplines the war epic The Woman King, playing the leader of the all-female Agojie warriors, and next reprises her role as Amanda Waller in the comic book movie Black Adam. (She was also recently cast as the villain in the Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.)
Here, A.frame is looking back on Davis' most essential and iconic performances.
Denzel Washington made his directorial debut with this drama based on the true story of the titular U.S. Navy serviceman. Davis plays his estranged mother, Eva May, who gave him up after giving birth to him as an incarcerated teen. Though the actress only appears briefly in the movie, the scene in which Eva May finally reunites with Antwone is so powerful that it earned Davis an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Davis earned her first Oscar nomination for John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his award-winning stage play about a Catholic school principal (Meryl Streep) who begins to question the close relationship between a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and one of the young students. Davis plays Mrs. Miller, the young boy's mother, and appears in just one scene, an emotional confrontation between her character and Streep's Sister Aloysius Beauvier.
Streep and Hoffman were both Oscar-nominated for their performances, with dual Best Supporting Actress nominations for Amy Adams and Davis, despite the latter having only about eight minutes of screen time. With Doubt, the actress cemented herself as a force to be reckoned with.
Davis has expressed regret for starring in The Help, an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name about a white woman (played by Emma Stone) writing a book about the experiences of the Black maids (including Davis' Aibileen Clark) in the 1960s South.
"The friendships that I formed are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor," Davis said of the film in a 2018 interview. "I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn't the voices of the maids that were heard."
Still, the film remains an important part of her legacy — for it, she earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress — with a transcendent performance from Davis that stands the test of time.
Co-starring opposite Terrence Howard, Hugh Jackman, and Jake Gyllenhaal, Davis makes a strong supporting turn in Denis Villeneuve's psychological thriller, playing Nancy Birch, the mother of one of two kidnapped young girls. When the other girl's father takes matters into his own hands, Nancy's morality and will are tested as she sets out to get her daughter back by any means necessary.
Reuniting with her The Help director for this James Brown biopic, Davis stars as Susie Brown, the musician's mother who remains largely absent from his life, but comes back into the picture once her son has made it big. A then up-and-coming Chadwick Boseman portrays the Godfather of Soul, marking the first onscreen collaboration between the two actors.
One can't reflect on Davis' work without spotlighting Fences and her performance as the long-suffering housewife Rose Maxson, a role she first took on in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson's play of the same name and for which she won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Play. She reprised her role as Rose in Denzel Washington's film adaptation and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
"People ask me all the time, 'What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?'" she said onstage at the Oscars. "The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist — and thank God I did — because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life."
Who better than Davis to lead a team of widows (Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo and Michelle Rodriguez) who pull off a heist to pay off the debts of their recently deceased criminal husbands? In Steve McQueen's neo-noir thriller, Davis plays her de facto queenpin, Veronica, with steely nerve and style, commanding every scene she's in.
Directors Bert and Bertie’s family film centers on Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), a girl growing up in 1977 Georgia who recruits other elementary-school misfits to form their own Birdie Scouts Troop. In a more lighthearted role for Davis, she plays their troop leader, Miss Rayleen, chewing the scenery as she goes toe-to-toe with an uptight local scout leader played by Allison Janney.
Adapted from another August Wilson play, this time produced by Denzel Washington and directed by George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom sees Davis star as the titular Mother of Blues. The movie follows her over the course of one recording session, as she clashes with both her producers and band members (including Chadwick Boseman, in what would be one of his final roles).
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom earned five Oscar nominations, including a posthumous Best Actor nod for Boseman and Davis' fourth career Oscar nomination. (This time for Best Actress.) The film won two, for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling, both instrumental in Davis' transformation into Ma Rainey.
Sandra Bullock — star and producer of The Unforgivable — reportedly begged Davis to appear in the film. Bullock plays Ruth Slater, who is released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence for murder and returns to her childhood home, where she is confronted by Liz Ingram (Davis), the woman who now lives there. Davis only appears in one scene, but as she has done time and time again, proves with it that there are no small roles.