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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act July 24, 2012 at 12:02PM

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.
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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."

Indeed.

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:

This article is related to: Viola Davis


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