It’s been fascinating to read all the dissection of THE HELP and Viola Davis’s statements and career; a dissection that’s been filtered through mostly a 2011/2012 lens.
So I thought, let’s do a young Viola Davis thought experiment. She’s 46, what would the film world been like for her at age 17 to 19? To narrow it down, let’s look at the 100 top grossing films of 1984 to see what she could have played in as a young actress in Hollywood. Which of those films would have possibly been a launching pad?
From jump, you have to eliminate BEVERLY HILLS COP, because it doesn’t feature a love interest for Eddie Murphy, and the same for GHOSTBUSTERS and Ernie Hudson. So that leaves us with:
11. Purple Rain
38. The Cotton Club
62. Beat Street
63. Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
BREAKIN’ and BREAKIN’ 2 feature a white female lead, but conceivably Davis, if she’s been trained as a dancer, could have been casted and the parents re-casted from that. But, they aren’t star makers by any stretch of the imagination. PURPLE RAIN is more of a great concert film that happens to include a melodramatic, underwritten storyline, than it is a straight dramatic film (it’s still a cult classic, don’t think I’m not showing it love when is say that, it is what it is). And it’s really a showcase for Prince and the Revolution and for Morris Day and the Time. BEAT STREET is a classic that only really exists because Hollywood was looking to capitalize on a fad, much like they would six years later with the Lambada.
So of the films on the list, only THE COTTON CLUB would have been a true jumping off point, however, it’s a film that featured Richard Gere as the lead, so it wasn’t a true vehicle for Black actors. But, Laurence Fishburne, Gregory Hines and Mario Van Peebles all have had their fair share of success afterwards. Wait, this is about a young Viola Davis’s possibilities. So what about Lonette McKee’s career? She was in THE COTTON CLUB.
She did get to act in the dramatic classic BREWSTER’S MILLIONS the next year. Snark aside, she is in the well respected ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT, which does feature a Black Male Lead that isn’t a comedy, two years after that. A quick glance though, and you see she’s rarely–which basically means never–been a lead or the sole lead. Even in some of her more high profile, well-perceived projects, which feature all or predominately African American casts HAVING OUR SAY and QUEEN. And let’s be honest, those pieces are more solid than outstanding and were in TV, not film.
So let’s jump to the year Davis graduated college, 1988. Which should be a good year for Black Actresses. THE COLOR PURPLE was a dominant film in 1985. SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT was released in 1986 and we likely wouldn’t have had the indie boom of the 1990s without it and the other films released around that time.
So the 1988 list gives us:
3. Coming to America
49. Action Jackson
51. The Serpent and the Rainbow
52. Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach
67. School Daze
74. I’m Gonna Get You Sucka
At only 22, she would have been too young to play the mother in SCROOGED. She would have been the right age to be in COMING TO AMERICA, but that was a showcase for Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is another film that has a White lead, and has that exotic people of color veneer that Hollywood loves, so not much room there to shine. ACTION JACKSON was a minor box office success, and another 80s cult classic, but nothing that would have catapulted anyone in that film to another level. We’ll skip POLICE ACADEMY 5: THE SEARCH FOR MORE MONEY. I’M GONNA GET YOU SUCKA, like the Blaxplotation films it spoofed, is much more about the guys than it is the ladies, and I dare the average, emphasis on average, person to name all the women in the film.
So that leaves SCHOOL DAZE, a film that features probably one of the highest concentrations of potent Black talent in the last 30 years. Even if you pull out Sam Jackson and his 7 billion dollar plus box office track record, and just use Ginancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Ossie Davis, Bill Nunn, Kadeem Hardison, Spike Lee, Jasmine Guy, the amount of Box Office revenue and amount of money they made for networks like NBC, AMC, CBS, etc, makes them an unqualified success as a group. And again, that’s not including the awards and accolades, or cultural impact.
But, again, Tisha Campbell-Martin nor Jasmine Guy have had many—again, basically zero—projects built solely around them, or that offered roles that allowed them to stand out. Tisha Campbell-Martin's two most prominent roles have been as a girlfriend and as a wife on TV. Jasmine Guy’s Whitley is a pop culture icon that endures, but she still was part of an ensemble on TV, not on film. In the feature world, neither of the them have a body of work that compares to what followed after Julia Roberts starred in her Independent Sprit Award nominated role in MYSTIC PIZZA. Note MYSTIC PIZZA comes in at number 76 on the chart for that year; so it wasn’t even as successful as I’M GONNA GET YOU SUCKA or SCHOOL DAZE.
I can go further with 1992, 1996 and on, but I think you get where I’m going.
When I read pieces like Tanya Steele’s (HERE) and all the others, I find them exasperating. While I understand the frustration, to not view Viola Davis’s career the way Viola Davis would have experienced it, highlights how much work we’ve got to do about how we hold conversations amongst ourselves and apply some rigorous analysis.
I’m pretty sure every Black actress, good or bad, transcendent to work horse strong to serviceable, would have welcomed the more leveled playing field digital technology has ushered in, in 1988. Because it’s much easier to write a “It's A Difficult Time To Be A Black Filmmaker With An imagination” piece in 2012 than it would be in 1988 or 1992.
As hard as it is today, we have tools that would have not been available, let alone affordable 25 years ago. That piece in 1988 would have been just “It’s A Difficult Time To Become A Black Filmmaker.”
The landscape looked sparse then, even on Broadway. SARAFINA!, JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE and AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ and two Paul Robeson projects out of nearly 30 productions. Which are beloved and critically acclaimed works, but they’re not like OUR TOWN or SPEED-THE-PLOW, which could feature race neutral casting and could instantly help expand and open up an actor’s resume. Which by extension, could open up possibilities on film.
Fortunately, theatrical work, while often still limiting, still offered a multitude of opportunities and a diversity she would have never had available in film. It’s reflected in her later Tony and Drama Desk award wins. Even in the 1980s, there were still many more productions, even if they were off-Broadway and in other cities, that would cast a Davis in roles originally envisioned as White and in plays as strong as August Wilson’s.
It’s very easy to place a spotlight on Davis now, especially as she’s being more vocal. But, I’m not sure how many Black Actresses from today, would still be in the game if they had graduated in 1988, even more so if they wanted to be in the movies. And today, as it was then, it takes only a few bad films and a subpar reel to derail a film career, stall it, or end it permanently.
If we want to have a discussion about what Davis’s career and her role in THE HELP says about today, and what kind of clout this press and nominations really give her, then we need to dig deeper and examine her whole career and the film world around her. But, we also need to recognize how much that path would influence her choices then and her choices now.
I’ll end on a few rhetorical questions:
For any filmmaker, why should anyone risk X number of years of hard work on you?
Would you have lasted as long as a Davis? And would have been as disciplined to not take certain roles, even it meant not knowing where that next paycheck is coming from?