Words of Viola Davis: Crossing the ‘Fences’ of the Great Man Tradition

“…The fact that we breathe, live a life and are God to our children means that we have a story and it deserves to be told…”

There cannot be a contention to a thought that Viola Davis offered a memorable performance in the cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s iconic play Fences. Even though her performance underlines her underappreciated presence in Hollywood, the subject matter of her character in the movie is a more fascinating discourse to delve into. Starting from the very decision of adapting a play into a movie to the definitive selection of screenplay and uncoloured construction of dialogues, the presence of this movie and especially of Viola Davis’s interpretation of the idea that it represents comes across as a major challenge to the established traditions of storytelling in American cinema.

When Viola Davis began to deliver her winning speech at Screen Actors Guild Awards (2017), she quite distinctively mentioned the word ‘history’. While expressing what this recognition means to her and to the idea that this film stands for, she said that it is not often that a movie is made to display the story of an average man who happened to be a man of colour. The speech delivered by Viola Davis is a direct attack to the concept of theorizing prevalent practice in both literary and historical studies known as the Great Man Tradition.

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Credits: Huffington Post

Coined by the 19th century historian and commentator Thomas Carlyle, the Great Man Tradition in historical studies is a concept that chooses to understand history from the existence of the ‘great men’ who had occupied decisive and substantially prominent or heroic positions in the society. Such was the conviction of Carlyle that in his book titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and Heroics of History, he goes on to comment that the ‘history of the world is nothing but the biography of great men’. This idea resonates in Machiavellianism as well which stands of inculcating duplicity and cunningness in general conduct or statecraft. The idea of looking at history from the lens of who is termed as a ‘hero’ focuses on making a retrospective study an instrument for guiding the socio-cultural development of future actions and psyche. The understanding of the nature of history itself has been shortened at one hand by focusing the subject matter on certain prominent figures and on the other hand it has been displayed to be widened by associating it with the understanding of present dogmatic trends and the construction of some kind of future course of action.

There have been many criticisms to this tradition mainly coming from the realms of feminism and Marxist studies. However one that mounted the most was the one given by scientist and sociologist Herbert Spencer who refuted to see these ‘heroes’ in an isolated form. To Spencer, these cult personalities do not occupy these positions on their own or do not exist outside the social relations of their society. It is the social factors prevailing at that time that create a favourable or enabling environment for certain figures to occupy influential positions. So, when Hollywood period dramas celebrate Jackie Kennedy or Lincoln, they get quite deferential by not focusing much on the role played by sociological forces in the construction of personality cult around these figures. However, the practice of building a climax and anti-climax in the narrative of the art has somehow pushed the movies slightly away from the great man practice, but only procedurally and not substantially.

It is in this backdrop that Viola Davis, in front of the entire fraternity, proclaims that the stories of an average man or woman deserve to be in the canon of any narrative that has been built out there. She is reiterating the process of alleviating the common person to the books of history or probably the democratization of the discourse on history itself. The character that she plays is a prejudiced class within a class that has been systematically prejudiced. The slow or ‘real’ movement of her body and corresponding emotions in the space of performance represents the plight of dialectic of sex that has haunted the fight for gender equality since generations. She is painstakingly ‘natural’ and she wants us to know that how unfair this ‘naturalization’ is. This plight and the outburst that followed is a political statement in itself. Through Rose, Viola Davis brings drama at the doorsteps of a minority household; a set of cinematic expressions to the unexpressed desires of a coloured woman.

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Credits: Vanity Fair

As Viola Davis went on to thank her husband and her daughter, and as crowd was left with no choice but to applaud, I could not help myself but think what we have done to deserve an actor like her. Even before Fences, her Oscar nominated performances in The Doubt and The Help reflect her sheer commitment to break away from the great man tradition of storytelling. And as the recognition comes ridiculously late, I hope the very coming of it will also bring the change in the way cinema chooses to represent itself in the cultural industry.