Viola Davis Is the Reason We're Watching How to Get Away with Murder


Six episodes into How to Get Away with Murder, I’ve asked myself, “Why am I still watching this?” While the freakish twists and cliffhangers make for good shock value, I barely care about the supporting characters. The reason I’ve stayed dedicated is, without a doubt, Viola Davis’ performance as Annalise Keating.

As a criminal attorney and professor, she’s easily one of the most menacing, scandalous and magnetic characters on television and consistently the highlight of the series. Maybe another actress could’ve played the role suitably, but none of them could’ve pulled off the monologues or the resting bitch face like Viola. She’s the main reason How to Get Away with Murder got picked up for a second season. According to Deadline:

How To Get Away With Murder, created/exec produced by Pete Nowalk and executive produced by Shonda Rhimes, has been the standout this fall. It has been breaking DVR records and, with a monster time-shifting viewing lift, it ranks as the biggest 10 PM drama debut in two years in Adults 18-49.

I’m more invested in Annalise than the show’s premise, which is essentially a collective game of Clue. Besides the overarching unsolved murders (Lila Stangard and Annalise’s husband Sam), there’s also an internal struggle with Annalise that we’re still figuring out. She’s an obvious anti-hero who feels complex in a way that’s cathartic for those of us who’ve been hoping for better fleshed out black characters on TV. She’s deceitful and guarded but also in agony. Her honesty seems to always have dishonest means. And both her wigs and her motives are off.

Last week’s episode, “Freakin’ Whack-a-Mole,” featured a scene that reminded me we’re dealing with an Oscar-nominated actress. The central case involves death row inmate David Allen, a black man who’s been imprisoned for 21 years for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s set to die from lethally injection in roughly two weeks. From the moment Annalise takes on his appeal, it’s clear from the way she looks at him while visiting him in prison that their connection is deep. At first, I’m thinking it’s familial, but later we find out it’s more of communal kinship.

In the courtroom during the emergency hearing, Annalise has a Senator subpoenaed and then proceeds to pummel him with non-stop questions about the destructiveness of his housing development. Her mini-filibuster moment has all the emotional punch of a political speech. At one point, Annalise challenges the Senator about “the thousands displaced in the name of lining [his] pockets, the majority of whom are poor and powerless and didn’t bear the color of skin desirable to [his] business interest.” When Annalise wins a retrial, you can tell she’s happy she helped give a black man a second chance.

Another scene that perfectly highlights Viola’s knack for subtlety is when Annalise de-wigs before confronting her husband about his dick pic. It’s a great, powerful performance of silence around a black woman taking off just one of the many facades we wear everyday. In a Huffington Post article last week, Viola said:

“I pushed for that to happen. I said, she’s not going to bed with her wig on. It could be powerful and liberating, but she’s got to take her wig off. Because who Annalise is in public is a big fat lie, and we have to see her taking off the armor, which is so thick, it becomes all the more dramatic when she removes it, and you see all the pain.”

Viola also talked about it on The Ellen Degeneres show.

It’s telling that the most raw moment of the series so far was the result of Viola’s persistence. In an interview with New York Magazine, she explained that she purposefully draws Annalise’s story from her real life:

The star has decided that Annalise’s back story closely mirrors her own. Davis grew up the ­second-youngest of six in the only black family in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Her mother, a maid and a factory worker, had an eighth-grade education and started having kids at 15. Her father, a horse trainer, made it through only the fifth grade. Davis’s Dickensian youth, before she left home to study at Juilliard, included wearing scarves at night to ward off rat bites, digging through Dumpsters for food, and enduring constant bullying. There was also, she says, “a lot of violence in the family. Poverty does that to you. I was very shameful growing up. I felt like I was in the hole, and you need something to pull you out of the hole.”

With Annalise, Viola and the writers have created a dominant black woman character who’s simply good at her job, however flawed. The actress has spoken at length about wanting meatier black characters in Hollywood, but there’s an interview from 2012 that sticks out to me. To promote The Help, Viola went on Tavis Smiley’s PBS talk show with the movie’s co-star Octavia Spencer for an interview that turned into a rare moment of honesty about the trouble with black actors playing stereotypical roles.

When Smiley tells the two women that he’s happy about their Oscar nominations yet indifferent about their portrayals as maids, Viola calls his mentality disparaging:

“The black artist cannot live in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity. and humanity is messy. People are messy. Caucasian actors know that….We as African American artist are more concerned with image and message and not execution.”

That might be bottling the complexity of the film world into one statement. It’s obviously not every black artist, and financial obstacles often impede execution. But what’s appreciated about Annalise is that Viola enjoys her messiness, and we can tell.

Images via ABC

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