Yesterday I watched Fruitvale Station and marveled at the way Octavia Spencer controlled every centimeter of frustration, sadness, and hope in the span of a few seconds. Spencer, as you may know, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 2011's The Help. She has been a wonderful actress for years and it all started because she took a chance to step away from her normal job and do some screen testing for Joel Schumacher. The risk paid off, and now she's in one of the most excellent and socially relevant films of the year.
Her role in Fruitvale Station reminded me of another actress who is long past overdue for national recognition, Viola Davis. I have championed her ever since we started writing for this site. She is a daring actress, picking roles that challenge privilege by showing who has it, why, and what her characters have to do to maintain it. Even in films I find reprehensible, like the incredibly misguided Won't Back Down, she never strains to make her point, letting her characters eyes and face tell the story of her life.
Just look at the scene that won her first Academy nomination for Doubt. She is onscreen for barely 10 minutes but manages to tell the entire story of how lucky she realizes her son is for being able to go to the school he does, and how much pain he and she are still in because of it. The moment she pleads with Sister Beauvier, played by Meryl Streep, the tears and anger in her eyes speak of a system that is dedicated to keeping well-meaning black people down and making them still feel pain for whatever little climbs they can take. Davis is the battered soul of that movie.
Ironically, Davis and Streep would both be up for the Best Actress award years later. Streep for The Iron Lady, and Davis for The Help. Because of Davis, and Spencer, the adaptation elevated the novel beyond the criticisms spoke from a single perspective cannot fathom what the servants were going through and made it into a universal hit. Streep, by proxy, gave a caricatured performance of an already cartoon-ready personality in a dry film with no weight and fraught with "historical relevance". The Academy is not one to take chances, but in a year where they had a cartoon on the right and a full human portrait on the left it would have been the time to do so.
Davis has won many awards both for her stage and screen acting but she deserves greater national prominence, especially in the face of performances like that. The moment she captured my stalwart admiration forever came in Antwone Fisher. She plays Antwone's mother, confronted by her son for the first time since abandoning him, and he simply tells her what a good person he's become and that he forgives her. Look at how much hurt is in her eyes, but still glazing to each corner. This is someone she never expected to see again and now she knows he is leaving, her gaze shows that she cannot hope for this again, and how much it hurts to be forgiven. There's a lot to love about that scene, and Derek Luke's similarly amazing performance, but she makes it unforgettable.
This may not be the year for Davis, as much as I still loved her in Beautiful Creatures, but I know that she will get that recognition someday. But when I watched Fruitvale Station I also saw trailers for 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and The Best Man Holiday I feel hopeful for what lies ahead.