In the advent of praise and admiration, there is little restraint in the use of hyperboles and superlatives. But I am hardly alone in my awe of Viola Davis’ renowned artistry. I am in good company with famed actor, Meryl Streep who has become one of Davis’ cheerleaders. At the this year’s Golden Globes awards, one of my best moments was when Streep cleared the path for Davis to come receive her award as Best supporting actress.
Late last year in the New Yorker magazine, Streep said of Viola Davis: “She has enormous restraint as an artist. It is a big dam holding back the deluge, and that power, held in check behind her eyes- what she withholds and makes you wait for- is evidence of real mastery.”
I became privy of the mastery of Viola Davis’ craft when I binged on the first season of ABC’s legal drama series, ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, where she played Annalise Keating a defence attorney and law professor. The zest she brought on screen made acting much more than late night entertainment to me. It was art. I had always seen actresses of colour try to cover up, conceal their faces with makeup even in bed but here was Davis in that moving scene, pulling off her wig and wiping off her makeup when the day’s work was done, when she was just in the company of herself. That scene was earthy. That scene was “real”.
Viola Davis is no newcomer. She graduated from Juilliard in 1990 and has been more active on stage than on screen where she won a Tony award for “Fences”, an August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of which its movie adaptation would earn her this year’s Golden Globes award as Best Supporting Actress. Her role as Aibileen Clark in the 2011 movie, “The Help” where she co-starred with Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone, earned her a second Academy Award nomination. But the roles she played on screen did not make wide enough room for her to display the vast range of her theatrical bent. ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, the series she began featuring in at age 49, was the burgeoning of her prime time.
Davis, now 51 has only just begun. I used to be sore afraid of the passage of time and what it would do to me. Milestones such as 30, 35 made me even more anxious in the wake of their anticipation. Would I have achieved enough? Would my life be well grounded enough? But when women like Davis are happening at an age when society would rather have the spark of their youth snuffed out like a candle in the rain and when retirement ought to hold chiefly in their minds, it serves as great motivation to see these women swim against popular tides. Conventionally, we are made to believe that one’s prime is in their twenties and thirties but it is pleasant to see some women blooming better and just like fine wine, getting tastier with age.
So many things about Viola Davis mocks conventional standards of measurement. In 2014, a New York Times movie critic called her “less classically beautiful” in comparison to other actresses of colour like Kerry Washington and Halle Berry. But who cares for classical beauty and its vaunted standards when art and craft are at their finest? “Vanity destroys your work.” She said in a New York Times’ interview. “It is one thing you have to let go of as an actor. I don’t care how sexy or beautiful a woman is. At the end of the day she has to take her makeup off. She is more than just pretty.”
Whoever seeks classical beauty should get on Instagram and follow tons of girls who are beautiful for a living. Viola Davis’ “beauty” is in her master craftsmanship; it is in the knowing that she is a virtuoso and at 51, she is only just becoming.