Viola Davis, 57, is one of our greatest actresses working today — and she has an Oscar, an Emmy and two Tonys to prove it. This month, she stars in the historical epic The Woman King as General Nanisca, the leader of an all-female warrior squad who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) in the 18th and 19th centuries.
To prepare for the role, Davis underwent an intense training regimen to get her into fighting shape. “When I was a girl… I just wanted to be willowy and thin,” she told People. “I was always muscular and thicker, and I felt like my femininity could not be created with this canvas. And then all of a sudden, with this role, my muscles, my arms, my thick legs, my heavy voice were perfect. I felt unapologetic about it. I celebrated it physically in every way.”
But even when Davis isn’t kicking literal butt, she’s made a career of playing fiercely independent women: mothers and wives, housekeepers and professors, and even a first lady. Here, nine more of the complex and complicated roles that have made Viola Davis an awards magnet and a fan favorite.
The premise: Davis is only on screen for about 10 minutes in this movie based on John Patrick Shanley’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, but she made such an impact that she earned her first Oscar nomination. Mrs. Miller is the mother of the only Black student at a Bronx Catholic school in the 1960s, and he may be getting abused by a priest named Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In her brief appearance, Davis shows extraordinary depth without ever looking like she’s capital-A acting, and she cemented her status as Hollywood’s best crier.
The fiercest moment: Almost the entire performance is confined to one explosive talk between Mrs. Miller and principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep, 73) — which Roger Ebert called “a scene as good as any I’ve seen this year.” He continued: “[If] Viola Davis isn’t nominated by the Academy, an injustice will have been done. She goes face to face with the preeminent film actress of this generation, and it is a confrontation of two equals that generates terrifying power.”
The Help (2011)
The premise: In this gently moving Civil Rights drama, Davis and eventual Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, 52, star as Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, two housekeepers working for white families in 1963 Mississippi. When Southern society girl Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) decides to begin interviewing them for a journalistic exposé about the racism they face from their white employees, the tight-knit community begins to unravel as personal secrets are revealed. Despite having to shoulder the burden of systemic and outright racism at every turn, Davis’s Aibileen maintains her warmth and quiet strength throughout, which is especially on display in the love she feels for the young white girl she cares for. Say it with us: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Aww.
The fiercest moment: You’ll want to cheer for Aibileen as she at long last stands up for herself in her final confrontation with the racist Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Join today and save 25% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
How to Get Away with Murder (2014-20)
The premise: TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes, 52, has never shied away from creating complex female protagonists, but she may have outdone herself with Annalise Keating, a brilliant law professor who wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Keating was filled with contradictions — at once selfish and a mentor to her students, arrogant and vulnerable, coolly professional and a hopeless romantic. Watching her work her magic in a courtroom was like witnessing a lioness take down prey, and in 2015 Davis became the first Black performer to win the Emmy for best actress in a drama.
The fiercest moment: It’s hard to beat the incredible scene in which Annalise removes her wig and her makeup, the glamorous armor she uses in the world of high-powered attorneys, before confronting her husband about a shocking discovery found on a dead girl’s phone. It was a vanity-free scene, dripping with symbolism, that had comedian Phoebe Robinson writing on The Cut that it was “THE SINGLE GREATEST MOMENT IN BLACK WOMEN TELEVISION HISTORY” (her caps lock, not ours!).
Don’t miss this: Shonda Rhimes’ Best TV Shows of All Time (So Far!)
Lila & Eve (2015)
The premise: After her son is murdered in a drive-by shooting, Lila (Davis) meets a fellow grieving mother named Eve (Jennifer Lopez, 53) at a support group. When the police fail to bring the killers to justice, the pair decide to take matters into their own hands and seek vengeance, working their way up the criminal chain of command until they find out who ordered the killing. It’s a brutal little revenge flick that went under the radar when it was released, but if you like Lifetime movies — the network’s theatrical arm produced it — you might be pleasantly surprised.
The fiercest moment: Before Lila turns into a gun-toting vigilante, Davis shows off her preternatural gift for emotional authenticity in those early support-group scenes.
The premise: This adaptation of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play finally won Davis her Academy Award, and it’s an emotional doozy of a film. It’s the 1950s in Pittsburgh, and sanitation worker Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, 67, who also directed) is a once-promising baseball player who was too old to play in the majors once the league was desegregated. Davis plays his long-suffering wife Rose, a role that earned her a Tony during the play’s 2010 Broadway revival, and she bears the weight of his bitterness and infidelity while remaining a rock for her family.
The fiercest moment: When Rose finally stops putting up with Troy’s nonsense, her monologue is a thing of beauty. “I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot with you,” she cries. “Don’t you ever think I wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me?” No other actress stood a chance that year.
The premise: In this heist thriller by 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, a trio of women (played by Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez) work together to repay debts to a Chicago crime boss after their gangster husbands are killed in a police standoff. Davis is at her commanding best as Veronica, a teachers’ union delegate who decides that their best course of action is to steal $5 million from a local politician. She’s so steely-eyed and determined that you don’t blame her fellow widows for following her into battle.
The fiercest moment: For Davis, the most powerful scene was perhaps the film’s gentlest — a simple makeout session with her husband. “Here I am, I’m dark, I’m 53, I’m in my natural hair... and I’m with Liam Neeson,” she told the BBC. “I’m with what America would consider to be a ‘hunk.’ He’s not my slave owner. I’m not a prostitute. It’s not trying to make any social or political statements. We’re simply a couple in love. And what struck me in the narrative is that I’d never seen it before.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
The premise: Davis earned her fourth Oscar nod for yet another August Wilson adaptation, this one set over the course of one sweltering summer day in a Chicago recording studio in 1927. The real-life blues singer Ma Rainey and her bandmates (including the late, great Chadwick Boseman) record an album and discuss the ways Black artists have been exploited by a racist entertainment industry that respects the art but not the artist. Davis delivers a tour de force, equal parts regal and raging, sweat-drenched and swaggering.
The fiercest moment: “They don’t care nothin’ about me,” Davis says in a blistering monologue. “All they want is my voice.”
Watch it: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix
The Suicide Squad (2021)
The premise: In this gonzo, ultraviolent DC Comics film, the superheroes take a backseat to the most brutal and psychotic of supervillains. A.R.G.U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Davis) assembles a team of incarcerated baddies to go on a mission to the South American island of Corto Maltese and destroy a giant alien starfish named Starro the Conqueror. “[Davis is] just the sweetest person in the world and Waller is scary,” director James Gunn, 56, told The New York Times. “When she’s on set and that turn happens, I am literally afraid to come in and give her a note because of the look in her eyes. It is incredibly intimidating.”
The fiercest moment: Waller begins to emerge as the true villain throughout the film, and she reaches a breaking point of blood-boiling rage in the scene when she threatens to execute the Suicide Squad. We won’t spoil what happens next.
The First Lady (2022)
The premise: Davis recently stepped into some very famous shoes to play Michelle Obama, 58, in this Showtime political anthology series, which also starred Gillian Anderson, 54, as Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Pfeiffer, 64, as Betty Ford. While some critics weren’t entirely convinced by her portrayal, we give her bonus points for taking on the unenviable task of tackling a contemporary figure whom everyone has an opinion on. She doesn’t treat the former First Lady with kid gloves, instead portraying her as a real woman with strong opinions, a quick wit and a fun-loving relationship with her husband and kids.
The fiercest moment: You’ll get a kick out of her asserting her power and telling Rahm Emanuel (Michael Aronov) that she refuses to be a “Stepford FLOTUS.”
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.