The incomparable Viola Davis is definitely worth her salt. When you see Viola Davis movies, you just know you’re probably going to have to whip out the hankies. And that’s because whether it’s on the big screen, the little screen, or even on the stage, Viola Davis always gives a powerhouse performance, no matter what. The first black woman to win the Triple Crown of Acting (that would be an Academy Award, an Emmy, AND a Tony), Viola Davis is in a league of her own.
But what are her very best performances? You know, I’ve done this for Idris Elba, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker, but this might be the hardest ranking yet. So, what are her best performances? Well, you’re about to find out, and I guess I will, too, since I’m still deciding even right now. There are just too many fantastic performances to pick to just narrow it down to 1!
10. Won’t Back Down (Nona Alberts)
Teacher movies are typically pro-education system, and pro-teacher. Well, Won’t Back Down is definitely the latter, but certainly not the former, as it’s a film that goes after the teacher unions. Starring Viola Davis and also Maggie Gyllenhaal as two mothers who are upset with the local school system, Won’t Back Down is the kind of film that will likely make you either pump your fist in agreement or shake your head in disagreement. It all depends on your stance on unions.
As a teacher myself, I kind of dislike the messaging of this movie, but I can’t deny Viola Davis her perfect performance as a fed-up mother who is at her wit’s end with the failing school system in her neighborhood. Through every scene, Viola Davis just seems tired. But throughout the film, you get a sense of hope when she and Gyllenhaal’s character form their own school. It’s a great performance in an otherwise so-so movie.
9. Suicide Squad (Amanda Waller)
The DC movie, Suicide Squad, is about a league of supervillains who are hired to prevent the end of the world. It stars Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Jared Leto, but Viola Davis steals the show as Amanda Waller, who handpicks her villains and gives them orders. I’ll tell you. Viola Davis is one bad mother—shut your mouth! I’m just talking about Viola Davis!
Honestly, I think Suicide Squad is kind of a disaster. It’s super corny and quite possibly has the worst Joker ever put to film with Jared Leto. But Viola Davis still delivers a home run performance as Amanda Waller. She’s tough, she’s stern, and she truly makes you believe that somebody like Deadshot or Killer Croc would actually take orders from her. It’s great acting from Viola Davis, sure, but everything else around her is awful. That’s why it’s at this place on the list.
8. Ender’s Game (Major Gwen Anderson)
Viola Davis is like, a serious actor, which is why it’s so cool that she does movies like Suicide Squad and the sci-fi flick, Ender’s Game. In the movie based on the famous novel, we learn about a boy named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, who’s a regular savant when it comes to modern-day warfare. Also starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford, Viola Davis’s role as Major Gwen Anderson isn’t huge, but it’s memorable enough that she fits in right alongside the two main leads.
Harrison Ford, as always, is his gruff self as Colonel Hyrum Graff. But Viola Davis, as his second-in-command, shows toughness but also heart, as she feels for the children who are being groomed to be warriors before adulthood. It’s a tough balancing act to walk—steeliness and compassion—but if anybody can pull it off, it’s Viola Davis, and she does so! With aplomb.
7. Get On Up (Susie Brown)
RIP, Chadwick Boseman. Get On Up, which is the biopic of James Brown, is pretty much the Chadwick Boseman show from start to finish. The movie jumps back and forth in James Brown’s life, from his poor upbringing to his superstardom. And Chadwick is great in the role. But if there’s one performance I keep going back to, it’s Viola Davis as Susie Brown, James Brown’s mother.
Susie Brown is not a great person. In fact, she admits herself that she never wanted to be a mother. And you can see on her face that’s she’s conflicted about this when her son reaches superstardom, struggling to be what she knows she’s supposed to be, but also what she knows she’s not, which is a good mother. Most actors couldn’t pull off making you feel both sorry for a character like this, and also angry, but this is Viola Davis we’re talking about here. Of course she could pull it off. She could probably do this role in her sleep if she wanted to.
6. Prisoners (Nancy Birch)
Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is a depressing and distressing film. It’s about kidnapped kids, and if there’s anything that scared me more than anything else growing up (besides Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker) it was the idea of being kidnapped. This story deals with the parents though, and it stars Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, and Viola Davis.
Hugh Jackman stars, but Viola Davis is electric as a grieving mother who shows every single range of emotion in this role. She’s happy, distressed, terrified, grief-stricken, and finally, sadly enough, accepting of what she thinks must have happened to her child. Viola Davis is probably the greatest crier in the business, and those tears feel earned in this staggering performance.
5. The Help (Aibileen Clark)
Yes, I’m well aware that Viola Davis herself doesn’t like her role in this movie, which is about Black maids who work for racist socialites, and the white writer who tells their story, but I like it. It’s an enjoyable enough film just like Green Book is an enjoyable enough film. But I do understand why Viola Davis isn’t fond of it since it does kind of have that white savior mentality going for it with Emma Stone’s writer character.
But Viola Davis is still really great in the movie as Aibileen Clark. She and Octavia Spencer are compelling throughout, and Viola Davis gives one of her very best performances when she’s talking about her son. So dislike the movie, sure, but you just can’t hate on Viola Davis’s role in it. She killed it.
4. How To Get Away With Murder (Annalise Keating)
Playing a law professor isn’t easy. You not only have to sound like you understand all the legalese you’re spouting, but you also have to take on the role as a mentor to law students. Add in a murder plot, and you have acting gymnastics that’s probably the equivalent of doing backflips while catching chainsaws at the same time. Thankfully, Shonda Rhimes got Viola Davis for the job as Annalise Keating, so everything turned out fine.
Playing Annalise for 6 seasons, Viola Davis again found herself going through a wide range of emotions, including guilt and ultimately addiction. How to Get Away with Murder, while it was on, was like getting a whole buffet of acting from Ms. Davis. Is it little wonder that she was the first black woman ever to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series? Well deserved, indeed.
3. Widows (Veronica Rawlings)
Widows’ Veronica Rawlings is like Amanda Waller 2.0. In this Steve McQueen heist thriller, Viola Davis is certifiably badass as a widow who endeavors to pull off a heist with three other women after the deaths of their husbands.
What can I say about Viola Davis in Widows? I love when Viola Davis is crying and getting all emotional over the loss of somebody important to her. But do you know what I love even more? When Viola Davis is freaking pissed! Viola Davis doesn’t allow anything to get in her way in this movie and she’s a force of nature. Not only that, but she gets to fire a gun! Yep, that’s my Viola!
2. Doubt (Mrs. Miller)
Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning play of the same name, Doubt is like an acting-lover’s dream come true. It stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a priest, Meryl Streep as a suspicious nun, Amy Adams as a sister at a school, and Viola Davis as a distraught mother who is willing to turn a blind eye to possible sexual abuse of her child if it means that he can stay in the Catholic school he is attending.
I mean, wow, just wow. Viola Davis isn’t in the film all that long, but I will always remember her scene with Meryl Streep when she’s pouring out her heart about her son and her knowledge of what is likely going on between her child and a priest. It’s such a difficult role to pull off, but like Viola Davis’s role as the mother of James Brown in Get on Up, Viola Davis proves she’s more than capable. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, and even though she lost, I definitely think she deserved the win.
1. Fences (Rose Lee Maxson)
I might be a little biased with my #1 Viola Davis performance since August Wilson’s Fences is my favorite play. But hey, Viola Davis won her only Oscar (a crime!) for her role as Rose Lee Maxson, garnering a Best Supporting Actress trophy for her performance. Fences is about a harsh man who was born too early to reap the benefits of his baseball dreams, and everybody else who has to share his misery with him. Viola Davis plays his wife, and she sticks by him, even though he’s not the best husband or the best father. But you never feel sorry for her. You can tell she’s making the choices she feels are best for her and her family.
This is Viola Davis’s strongest performance in my opinion because you can tell she’s a secondary character, but depending on how you watch it, she really could be the protagonist of the movie. She has her own ups and downs and triumphs and miseries, and you come to love her compassion and her ability to forgive the unforgivable. Viola Davis plays strong, and yet vulnerable characters all the time, but this is the one that hits closest to the heart.
And those are Viola Davis’s best performances. As mentioned up top, it’s really hard for me to decide which is truly her best role (I was very close to putting her role in Doubt at number 1). But what’s most important to remember is that every Viola Davis performance is magnificent, and we’re lucky to have her as an actress.