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A Young Viola Davis Thought Experiment (An "Open Letter..." Rebuttal)

by Charles Judson
February 14, 2012 6:42 PM
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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

18 Breakin’

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

13. Scrooged

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?

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  • Must_See | March 28, 2012 10:23 PMReply

  • Renina | February 18, 2012 11:44 AMReply

    The conversation here between Charles and Nadine is illuminating. There is something to be said for looking at the historical moment out of which an artist emerges. Your conversation around the state of Black film, theater and television in the 1980’s and 1990’s certainly sheds some light on possible “possibilities” during that time period. However, it may also be useful to think about an artists expectations for his or herself in terms of what “success” is defined as. For example, last night I mentioned the conversation taking place on this blog to a friend of mine who is Brown skinned Black woman working actress and she mention that coming out of Julliard, there are expectations that you do Shakespeare in NYC upon graduation. That you go on to work for the people who have been training you since you have been in school. So my first question, what happened to Ms. Davis after graduation. My second question is, what role does institutional socialization have on what a Julliard trained Black woman actresses expectations? Or to state it another way, what did it mean for her to graduate from Julliard, and to have the expectations that she would be treated like her White peers (peep the 2009 interview with The AV Club) only to learn that she is a brown skinned Black actress in environment that says, thin, White, blond and young is the norm; and this IF they are allowed to be in a film in meaningful way.

    In the AV club interview Ms. Davis does point to how mainstream standards of beauty are material to her ability work. That shit is real. She also talks about the categories that White women in Hollywood are placed in.

    What does it mean to want to toil in an industry that has demonstrated, by and large, that people who look like you are invisible or that you will have to fight like hell to be visible? And that your visibility, and the historical visibility of women who look like you have been tied to you being continually asked and allowed to play the maid. What is that lived experience like? What in the hell does that do to a person’s spirit? These are the questions that I am interested in because they illuminate the politics of visibility for Brown skinned Black women.

    Because, don’t think I did not see that Gabby Sidibe played a maid, in the recent Eddy Murphy vehicle.

  • Charles Judson | February 19, 2012 12:04 PM

    The questions you are asking is the whole point of my piece. The answers those will illicit, along with the questions they in turn will raise, are much more illuminating than just tossing out egocentric op-ed pieces. As for Gabby playing a maid, it's a movie about domestic workers of all colors getting revenge on a rich guy. Her playing a maid fits. Remember, that was a project that started out with an all Black cast. I don't really see that one as a gotcha.

  • Terri | February 15, 2012 1:12 AMReply

    Traveling back in time like this made me imagine a young and vivacious Viola Davis as Nola Darling. Oh what a different film history we might have had--what kind of film would that have been then? Johns was chosen from theater after all. Tracy Camilla Johns may not have wanted an acting career but if there was a black film that could have launched careers of young black actors in the late 1980s I'd like to think She's Gotta Have It was the one. But for a variety of reasons that's not what happened and probably was not what could have happened either. We wuz robbed. What role would the extraordinary Davis have played in Do the Right Thing? And the 1990s so called "black wave" of Waiting to Exhale? Jungle Fever? Devil in a Blue Dress? Eve's Bayou? Or ... Daughters of the Dust? But what then? What happened to the 90s black women actors? Were there really any roles for Davis here and can we imagine these as launching pads--for her or for anyone? It's tough -- whether an actor can successfully cross over into Hollywood from an independent black film, if they want to do that. I would think actors experience them as different worlds, each with specific limitations -- I think of Girl 6 and that character's exploration of black women's film/tv roles: Carmen Jones, Nola Darling, the Jefferson's daughter combined with someone else, and one other I think that I'm forgetting. Robert Townsend examined the experiences of actors in Hollywood Shuffle. Anyway, the greater point of the article is that Davis did not come from nowhere and as viewers we need to understand and explore that with more patience and empathy. I especially appreciated the lines "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." Now I'm curious to know what she might have auditioned for and sort of look at what she was actually doing and might have wanted to do next to these possibilities. But I want her to just do her thing. I really enjoy hearing her thoughts but I don't want her to feel crushed by any representational burdens. It's time for film criticism with an historical imagination. I very much enjoyed Brent Staples' piece in the NYTimes over the weekend as well ... In that one the black stereotypes from the past visit the future and we imagine what they make of the current black images

  • Nadine | February 14, 2012 8:39 PMReply

    "I can go further with 1992, 1996 and on, but I think you get where I’m going."... I don't know where you're going... spell it out for me please?

  • Nadine | February 19, 2012 9:49 AM

    @Charles, there were a couple of points I wanted to make but it seems that I've been restricted by S&A and can only post about 4 lines of text. There are different paths for different actress types...if you're White you go from ingenue to leading lady; Black actresses? Maid, single mother, drug addict, etc... to leading lady... no more room to write...

  • Charles Judson | February 14, 2012 10:51 PM

    The point is, Davis's career is a culmination of everything that she could and couldn't do till this point. Managing a creative career is a combination of knowing when to say yes, when to say no, and having to navigate around the lack of opportunity, and opportunities that might be dead ends, to get to the jobs that fulfill, enrich and also pay the bills. It's very easy for a filmmaker in 2012 to critique a Davis in 2012. But, Davis, both as a person and as an actor in 2012 are the results of nearly 3 decades of work, choices and circumstances out of her control. And all her decisions now, all of the limitations placed on her, will lead to what she'll be in 2013, 2014, 2015. For a young filmmaker to critique an experienced Davis without considering that at the same age, Davis would have not had the same opportunities is to be a little be arrogant. Think of this. Angelina Jolie is seen as an action star because she was smart enough to star in THE BONE COLLECTOR , GIRL, INTERRUPTED and GONE IN 60 SECONDS back to back. Boom. People see her as a tough action chick. So for a young Black filmmaker to not realize that a Davis has to put more thought into her career just to get a role like Angelina Jolie's PUSHING TIN and be somebody's wife, a role Jolie played at 23--say it again, 23-- is fool hardy. So from the outside, it looks like she's being a snob. Anyone paying attention, will recognize that until things change more, Davis can't slip up, or those nominations and Tony awards will no longer keep doors open long enough to get her to the next level. There are plenty of White actors whose careers were on the up swing and tanked or flat lined. But, the real point, is that Davis is an Actor. You give her something she thinks will push her and she can proudly add to her resume, she'll do it. Believe it or not, Hollywood as fake as it can be, loves noble failures and overreaches that still showed promise and flashes of brilliance. Problem is, Black actors don't get to have many of those.

  • a reader | February 14, 2012 8:36 PMReply

    This is definitely food for thought.

  • Nadine | February 14, 2012 8:32 PMReply

    I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS ESSAY CHARLES... Why focus on 1988 and 84 alone... I don't understand. I grew up in the eighties and nineties and they had a HECK of a lot more diversity than they do now. I don't understand what you are saying... I am actually perplexed. Are you saying that we must look through her lens to understand HER experiences? Personally, I'm not looking back at the climate and surmising what that experience might have been, I WAS the experience and I DID NOT FEEL LEFT OUT CULTURALLY. I'm not sure if you understand how insidious the climate is right now for Black women and casting, Charles, and I'm disappointed by your exasperation... The 80s? How about the 80s AND the 90s? Whoopi Goldberg ALONE: Okay, yes Color Purple, but we're talking Fatal Beauty, Burglar, The Associate, Clara's Heart, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Corrina, Corrina, MY FAVORITE Star Trek - loved her, Sister Act 1 & 2, Eddie, I mean she was a member of the comedic Dream Team with Robin Williams & Billy Crystal, not to mention Diana Ross, House Party movies and even television roles, we HAD TOOTIE, u know what I mean? COSBY/DIFFERENT WORLD daggone it! Just the women who came out of that, all shades ;) ... Living Single which if you check out the timing has Sex and the City looking suspiciously like a knock off... check it out... I'm just sayin'! All this AND MORE while R&B/hip hop AND mainstream music was inclusive: Stephanie Mills, Janet Jackson, Lisa Fisher, Pointer Sisters, En Vogue, SWV, Salt & Pepa, Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, rap "girl groups" out of the West Coast 3,5,7 and you know the rest..., Total, Missy Elliot, Lucy Pearl, Eve, Des'ree, all those little girl groups like 702 and so on... Changing Faces, Arrested Development, up to Erykah Badu, India Arie and Lauryn Hill... We had Supermodels, Naomi, Tyra, Katoucha, Karen Alexander, Gail O'Neal, Roshumba, mercy and a million others, seriously... Georgianna Robertson... The list is unfathomably long NOT TO MENTION the BLACK THEATER in NYC in the 80s and 90s...what?!?!? Every one of those industries is, now, like a desert or has replaced more competitive Black women with less competitive Black woman "players" in the game (all the "fat, black, female roles post 2000/Big Mommas House on...)...What, Julliard? Late 80s early 90s in NYC... and BLACK?!?!? The Golden Age of Black music and art in NY? New York Undercover?!?!? So, CHARLES, I SUBMIT TO YOU that Viola would not have become an actress and spent all of these years training and pounding the pavement if she had been raised with an industry that looks the way the current industry looks today. She was a YOUNG adult when there were clear opportunities or at least glimmers of greatness that Viola and other Black women could be inspired. Now, she probably feels hoodwinked by what she thought was an industry of possibilities - finding herself, like a desperate woman or man, trying to hold on to the man or woman they think they love but does not love them back. Blaming everyone but the "industry" she is so desperately holding on to given the sacrifices she has made. (There is also other stuff at play, which I'm not going to bother getting into - which seems to haunt this dear woman most)... I do hope, though, that we all can move away from this topic. The Tavis Smiley interview was unfortunate in that it stirred all of this up. I was sorry to hear her comments, given I was a staunch supporter. I will still support, of course, but now I just feel sad for her and her sacrifices.

  • Chris | April 14, 2012 9:38 AM

    Things weren't 100% perfect in the 80s and 90s for black women getting into entertainment, let alone in movies, but as Nadine has highlighted above the successess were far more notable, inspiring and promising than anything today. The fact that Whoopi Goldberg, black with unconventional looks , eventually became the most popular and highest paid actress in the movies for a period, however short, is the exact kind of achievement Viola feels black actressess haven't been given the chance to duplicate since.

  • Charles Judson | February 15, 2012 12:02 AM

    Depends on what you define as choices. Especially as an actor. Getting work is not the same as getting roles that push and stretch you. Nor is getting work the same as picking a role that will set you up for the roles you want. Look at Liam Neeson. It's not really a shock that he makes a bankable and believable action star. It's the same template that allowed Richard Burton to make WHERE EAGLES DARE and a Gregory Peck be in THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and the next year TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Yes, for us those 80s and 90s films and stories are enjoyable, for many actors, they are the nadir of their careers and not what they were aiming for.

  • jmac | February 14, 2012 11:37 PM

    Co-sign on all this. 80s and 90s were good times to be black even if all the movies/entertainment weren't up to par you had CHOICES. Still goes back to whether an actor wants to be famous "in the community" or be famous "in the industry as a whole." Sometimes the first road will lead to the second and sometimes it won't. If you want the second road, go ahead and take it but you're not going to get as many opportunities. What shoulda, coulda, woulda been for a young black actress in the 80s to break into the mainstream isn't relevant anyway. What that same actress could do two or three years ago to today and into the future is the real question. So far VD is collaborating on a project with Dee Rees (very good) but also optioned the rights to another book written by some white chick about black people (not so good). Is the former a choice and the latter just "posturing?" Time will tell. Oh, and say what you want about some of those black 80s actresses but they are still getting work. The difference now is that the work is not mainstream or as popular but they certainly aren't doing anything cringe-worthy. Also a bit unfair to shut down black tv actresses for not successfully transitioning into film actresses. That's seems to be a difficult crossover regardless of the actor.

  • Zeus | February 14, 2012 7:54 PMReply

    "If you're absent during my struggle, don't expect to be present during my success." - Will Smith

  • Jug | February 14, 2012 7:44 PMReply

    Damn even made me shut my mouth. Great point man.

  • Brotherflagg | February 14, 2012 7:03 PMReply

    Thank you for give the people something more to think about. I refused, and now I'm working on making my own film. Only time will tell how it all ends. My Dream of working in film.

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