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Viola Davis On What To Expect From Barbara Jordan Biopic + What Critics Of Black Actors Don't Understand

by Tambay A. Obenson
July 24, 2012 12:02 PM
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Viola La Times2

One of a few new projects Viola Davis is developing via her recently-formed (with her husband) JuVee production company, first announced in March of this year, but I've yet to hear anything further about it... until today.

First a recap...

Viola Davis will tackle the life story of Barbara Jordan in a feature film that will be based on the 2000 biography Barbara Jordan: American Hero, written by Mary Beth Rogers.

Paris Barclay will direct from a script adapted by Emmy-nominated writer Paris Qualles (primarily a writer for TV).

A little about Barbara Jordan... she was the first African American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention.

But, given how private a life she led, Jordan was considered something of a mystery, even to her close friends - friends who didn't know about the illness that would eventually kill her at just 59 years old.

From Publisher's weekly about the Mary Beth Rogers' biography of Jordan:

In Barbara Jordan, Mary Beth Rogers deftly explores the forces that shaped the moral character and quiet dignity of this extraordinary woman. She reveals the seeds of Jordan's trademark stoicism while recapturing the essence of a black woman entering politics just as the civil rights movement exploded across the nation. Celebrating Jordan's elegance, passion, and patriotism, this illuminating portrayal gives new depth to our understanding of one of the most influential women of our time-a woman whose powerful convictions and flair for oratorical drama changed the political landscape of America's twentieth century.

And while she never publicly discussed her sexual orientation (not that she had to), Jordan's obituary mentioned her long-term (30-year) relationship with Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist.

Then project has apparently been in the works for a few years, as Davis and Barclay are said to have been looking for a project to work on together since Davis starred in Barclay's CBS medical drama City of Angels in 2000. And it looks like they've finally found it.

"We're hoping this becomes a movie that shows the world everything that Viola can do. People haven't seen everything that she's capable of, and this role is so powerful," said Barclay.

Initial funding for development of the project was rovided by Chicago real estate developer David "Buzz" Ruttenberg. Qualles has been working on the script since our last post on it - if not before.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle posted on their website yesterday evening, Davis talked about the project (and other things) - specifically on what we can expect to see in the film:

"She was an American hero... I think that she was able to overcome a lot of insecurities in her life to fight for something bigger than herself. The movie that I'm working on is to show what a great political and statesperson that she was. But also because I'm an artist, I think it's even more important to show the personal demons that she had to wrestle with to get where she got to in her life in the political arena, and I think that is what makes her a hero. Oftentimes, we do not see that side of black female life. A lot of times we see that part where we win, we overcome, we're fabulous, but I don't think we often see the struggle - how we got to that point. That's what I want to show." 

Some would probably argue the oppostie - that we tend to see more of the struggle, and not enough of the fabulous, when it comes to depictions of black female life on cinema screens.

But I understand the need for balance - to show a complete, 3-dimensional human being, warts and all; instead of hagiography.

And when asked (for the millionth time) to essentially defend her choices as a black actress - specifically, most recently, in The Help (as well as choices made by other black actresses like Mo'Nique in Precious, and Halle Berry in Monster's Ball), Davis was defiant in her reply, stating:

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people who criticize black actors do not understand the business… They think we have more control than we have. They think we have access to these scripts that show us as scientific, beautiful, dark-skinned women over the age of 40 having great sex lives… and we choose not to take those scripts."

And she added that she worries that mediocre performances by black actors are more acceptable just because the characters are considered "likable."

"As black people, we will put a stamp of excellence on a piece of work because we like the image, but sometimes the image isn't executed well."

Of course, she didn't name any specific performances or films.

And finally, she didn't just vent, but also talked about the fact that, along with her husband, Julius Tennon, through their company JuVee Productions, they have a few projects in development that will present more diverse depictions of black people on screen, and provide good work for black actors, including the story of the early black-owned music label, Vee-Jay Records (a project we've profiled here on S&A).

"Instead of always criticizing Hollywood for what I feel they are not doing, I decided to be instrumental in that niche. I realized that in 24 years of being in this business, you have to be a creator of this different material. All of the stuff I'm working on has roles for black actors in Hollywood - and good roles... The only thing that separates many black actors from many of their Caucasian counterparts that are thriving is opportunity."


You can read the full Houston Chronicle piece HERE.

As for the Barbara Jordan project, as Barclay said previously, this should be quite a role for Viola to flex the range of her abilities.

No word on when we can expect to see the completed film.

Just watch the real Barbara Jordan in the below clip, giving the 1976 DNC Keynote Address:

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  • pdjeliclark | July 25, 2012 8:44 AMReply

    love viola davis as an actress. and she's superb. but i think she mistakes very valid criticisms of films like The Help (the entire association of black women historians put out a statement on it), for an attack on black actors/actresses. in fact, most critics *go-out-of-their-way* (to perhaps a fault) to often criticize the film/role but at the same time not disparage the actor/actress. her claim that black critics "don't understand" the limiting availability of roles in Hollywood for black actors/actresses seems bizarre; surely she can't be so insulated that she doesn't know that *this is precisely* what black critics of Hollywood discuss 24/7.

  • Martin | July 29, 2012 9:00 PM

    will both you and Viola have to take into account that there are/where different critics. There are Black critics who talk about the lack of roles of Black actors but then there are just those that will slam an taking a role like the help and want the actor to have done something different.

    The later more likely was the louder or at least the one Viola noticed

  • ALM | July 24, 2012 8:36 PMReply

    She is exactly right about opportunity. I hope Morgan Freeman heard that based on his comments earlier this week.

    The pictures S & A used of her here= EVERYTHING!!! SEXY, SENSUAL, and CLASSY

  • Donella | July 24, 2012 7:20 PMReply

    "As black people, we..." Not sure about the "we" comments Viola tends to make. That's limiting an entire race to one box, which is stereotype.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | July 24, 2012 5:59 PMReply

    Her memory still looms large here in Texas. They changed the name of the school down the street from where I grew up from "Jefferson Davis Elementary School" (you read that right) to "Barbara Jordan Elementary School."

  • BluTopaz | July 24, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    "They think we have access to these scripts that show us as scientific, beautiful, dark-skinned women over the age of 40 having great sex lives… and we choose not to take those scripts"

    Do people really think that?

  • BluTopaz | July 25, 2012 9:45 AM

    I believe Viola under-estimates the intelligence of Black audiences, which was my point in highlighting that specific comment. Sure there are a few people who advise her to get a better agent, etc. But overall I think most Black people who discuss her role in The Help are fully aware there is a serious lack of quality choices that she described. At least going by the convos I have read online--most people seem sympathetic to the plight of many Black actors, especially when they are popular. She seems rather defensive about her decision to accept one particular role. I get that she has to be careful and not fully address the crux of the frustration, that H'wood prefers to keep us in our place. This is the system that she was introduced to a quarter century ago, and just now getting a big break. It's sad that the accolades re: her role in The Help was that she fully humanized a character who was written as one dimensional. But her constant calling out of Black folks who want to see more complex stories of us on screen has grown tiresome. At least she is aware of the desire to see much better work, and is developing her own projects. This Barbara Jordan story sounds really promising.

  • Miles Ellison | July 24, 2012 11:19 PM

    If films were made from these hypothetical scripts she's speaking of, who would watch them? If given a choice between watching one of these films and watching Viola Davis play a maid, what would people flock to see? Which type of film is going to end up on more screens? The issue is as much about the choices the audience makes as it is about these imaginary choices Viola Davis is talking about.

  • mh | July 24, 2012 1:00 PMReply

    Viola Davis is an amazing actress. She puts alot of these so called A list actress to shame when she performs. I wish she got more roles but we know who Hollywood wants to see.

  • Lvflg | July 24, 2012 12:46 PMReply

    so how do we break out?????

  • Amari | July 24, 2012 12:36 PMReply

    Though she may not mention performances and films, we all know who and what she speaks of. She does have a point though, black roles are either seen as tokens, used in the Morgan Freeman (trademarked) "Magical Negro" role, or used to to highlight how funny and silly we are.

    Though people come down on Precious and The Help, at least Viola in her role as well as Octavia in hers were allowed to be more human than we often are seen in a highly advertised film. Did it go deep enough? No, but in case you didn't notice, there aren't black distributors like Universal, Paramount and etc, just black (or black owned) production companies. So even if we made movies, like Viola says she is going to do, outside of the indie circuit and the occasional article from this site or a few others, like Pariah, you can have good performances, but most won't know the movie even existed and because of that, we stay a niche market which gets what often feels like modern blacksploitation movies.

  • Ghost | July 24, 2012 11:50 PM

    Tyler won't get there either. The distributors and stores will control what gets put out. You can make the most positive image black film on the planet-guess what-what store will even sell it? Or out of the box black film or a white film with a lead black in it? A movie like Pariah-I have seen 1 store with copies and it WAS NOT in the hood. Half the films on this website will never seen a store display and if they do get into a store-you will have to hunt for them.

  • Mark & Darla | July 24, 2012 10:29 PM

    There aren't no black distributors, Tyler is getting there slowly but surely.

  • LeonRaymond | July 24, 2012 1:19 PM

    @AMARI, Pitch perfect point (How can we move ahead)?

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