With all this discussion we've had lately regarding Viola Davis and her role in the upcoming film The Help, and whether it's a degrading stereotyped role beneath her considerable talents, it reminded me of a role she played some ten years ago which might be even more controversial.
I'm referring to her performance as a vicious killer on one of the better and strongest episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, during the show's first season (Oh yeah that photo of her is from another appearance she made on L & O:SVU. I couldn't find an image of her from that CI show).
In that CI episode entitled Badges, Davis played an ex-NYC cop, Terry Randolph, drawing a pension, but who was also working as a security guard for the city's public school system. That means that Randolph was "double dipping" getting paid twice by the city which is a violation of city's rules. If caught, she would be subject to heavy fines, the loss of her pension, her job, or both.
And just to prove she was a really rotten, despicable person, she's also shaking down or accepting bribes from drug dealers to let them sell drugs on school property. But when a NYC comptroller comes snooping around, investigating Randolph's and other cops' illegal activities, she breaks into his home and kills him, his wife and their two young children.
Using her previous experience in forensics as a cop, she arranges the evidence to make it look as if the comptroller killed himself and his family in a murder/suicide, in an act of rage. However clues and mistakes by Randolph lead the police to target her as the murder suspect and eventually she's arrested after she reveals herself as the murderer in a trap set by the police.
Needless to say Davis is terrific in the role, and convincingly chilling as a sociopathic serial killer, without any trace of remorse or guilt, only revealing desperation and fear when she's finally arrested for her crimes.
But even when I saw the show for the first time, and I've seen it few times since then, I was always struck by the fact that here was a black woman playing the part of a depraved serial killer of a white family. And considering how sensitive we are to black actors playing, what could be called "negative" roles (Hell Halle is still getting grief for Monster's Ball) I wondered how Davis felt about playing that part.
Fortunately I had an opportunity to ask her a few years ago when I interviewed her while she was on a media tour hyping the film Doubt. I asked her if she had any second thoughts or trepidations doing that role on L&O:CI, especially as a black woman, and she told me that she didn't have any at all.
In fact, she told me, the fact that she is a black actress was the reason why she wanted to do it. As she explained, first of all, when was the last time had anyone seen a black woman play a serial killer? She felt it was an unique part, and that any actor or actress, especially a black one, should be free to take risks and challenge themselves, even if it meant playing a horrible person. How else who could one get better at their craft? Being an actor that means one should always take risks and challenge themselves.
I have to agree. Taking risks and challenging themselves should be a main goal for any actor, black or white. If an actor is always second guessing themselves, afraid of what people would say if they played, say, a totally unlikable, evil character, then what's the point of being an actor? Besides any actor will tell you that it's always a lot more fun playing a villain than a hero.
What do you say? What's worse for a black actress? Playing a serial killer who kills a white family or a maid working for one?