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Image for 00 Woman King Viola Davis Hero.jpg

Viola Davis: The Woman King Star's Rise to Fame

7/25/2022 • 4 min read

We go to the movies for a lot of different reasons. Film in all its forms offers a wide variety of pleasures that we couldn’t even begin to summarize here. But there are specific ones that keep us coming back. Seeing an actor of tremendous talent and presence as they thrive is one.Take Viola Davis, who always elevates a movie when she appears on screen.

Davis has been acting on stage since the early 1990s, and in the early 2000s really started to pick up steam on the big screen. She’s a true talent who is equally good as a leading performer and is a character actor. Some people can’t navigate that balance. But Davis is exceptional at putting just the right energy into a role no matter how small or how large it may be.

This year, Viola Davis leads the cast of THE WOMAN KING as the real-life figure General Nanisca as she trains the all-female warrior unit of the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. We want to talk about THE WOMAN KING, but more importantly, we want to look back at how Davis got to this point in her career.

The Soderbergh Connection

Some directors are better than others at generating momentum for an actor's career. Steven Soderbergh is very good at it. We’ve gone on record to say that Soderberg‘s 1999 movie OUT OF SIGHT is one of the great films of that decade. It gave a boost to virtually everyone involved with the movie, from Soderbergh to stars Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney and supporting cast members like Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, and Luis Guzmán.

It might be easy to overlook Viola Davis in the movie because she's only in one scene. But when she answers the door as Jennifer Lopez's character is searching for a criminal you can immediately see Davis's star power. Half of her job in the movie is to dish out information; it could be a thankless role. But Davis turns Moselle Miller into a real person.

Soderbergh went on to cast Davis in SOLARIS and TRAFFIC, as she appeared in George Clooney's 2005 movie SYRIANA, which was produced by Soderbergh as well.

Doubt and Fences

Davis's skill and charisma are apparent in many movies. But an important pair to consider is a set of two movies both based on stage plays. The 2008 movie DOUBT features Davis as the mother of a young man who is at the center of a difficult situation in a Catholic Church in the Bronx. Davis only has one scene in the movie, but it is an absolute showstopper. She delivers a monologue in which she explains the terrible position she and her family are in. It’s the crux of the entire movie. DOUBT stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman and a young Amy Adams, but Viola Davis steals the movie. It led to her first Oscar nomination, and arguably made her career.

Nearly a decade later, she starred in the movie FENCES, based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 play. In just eight years, Davis's profile had risen to the point where the poster for FENCES had three words in large type: Denzel, Viola, Fences. When you get to the point where your work and your reputation can be communicated with only your first name, you’re on a level few performers ever attain. This time, Davis won the Oscar — and for Best Actress, rather than Best Supporting Actress.

Fast-Forward to The Woman King

We can't cover every other movie in her career, but you've probably got a few Viola Davis favorites. She can make a character in SUICIDE SQUAD seem as real as someone in THE HELP or GET ON UP. Her lead performance in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM is a marvel.

Even when she's in movies with a lot of action, however, we haven't seen Davis do anything like what THE WOMAN KING offers. Her intense star and total commitment to character are channeled into a woman who leads both peaceful and violent factions at a pivotal time. Footage from THE WOMAN KING shows Davis flexing literally all of her muscles, from the figurative to the literal. We can't wait to see her charge into battle.


THE WOMAN KING opens on September 16.


All images courtesy of Sony Pictures.

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