Visiting director Lou Bellamy sits in a cafe recounting the time he saw Viola Davis in the Broadway revival of August Wilson's "Fences" opposite Denzel Washington.

"She did something, Viola did," began Bellamy, currently directing the Denver Center's revival of the Wilson drama.

"I still don't know what it was. She did this move and threw her arm up like that," he lifts his arm abruptly, oddly. "And it just made you gasp. It was like some sort of poetry that hits you and you say you don't know why but it's doing something."

Davis arrives at this year’s Academy Awards in Hollywood.
Davis arrives at this year's Academy Awards in Hollywood. (Getty Images file)

Ladies and gentlemen, consider that a spot-on description of a Viola Davis moment. The actress has a way of drawing you into her scenes, of demanding we look intently and listen even harder.

When the film "Won't Back Down" opens Friday, the 47-year-old Oscar nominee will once again display her gift for quieting things down, bringing us near.


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Nona Alberts is a teacher at a subpar elementary school in Pittsburgh. While she tries to rise to the occasion of her students' need, her own child's educational hurdles at another school weigh heavily on her. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the single mother of a dyslexic daughter who enlists Nona in what is essentially a parent-teacher takeover of a failing school. The title pretty much captures the spirit of their undertaking, and the film arrives in multiplexes amid controversy, much of it coming from teachers' unions unhappy with how they are depicted and critical of the film's backer (Philip Anschutz's Walden Media).

Since one of the heroines is in fact a teacher, we're not going to wade into that particular controversy for the moment. Instead, in taking on the role of Nona, Davis joins an impressive class of actors who have embraced the role of teacher onscreen: Edward James Olmos ("Stand and Deliver"), Robin Williams ("Dead Poets Society"), Michelle Pfeiffer ("Dangerous Minds") and Sidney Poitier ("To Sir With Love").

"I saw my teachers as heroic. But at the end of the day they're human," Davis said on the phone last month before the controversy began to boil.

"I think that dichotomy is interesting for an actor. Someone who is literally asked to do things that are superhuman. Which is, you've got to teach these kids in a way that will bring out the best in them, all of them. If you don't, then you're ruining them for life. Someone who, when they get to the classroom, also has a personal life that they are either struggling with or it's enhancing them, actors always love that," she said.

Asked about pivotal teachers in her life, Davis responds "there are too many to name."

Then she begins a list. "Mr. Yates at Central Falls High...." He was the English teacher and drama instructor at the Rhode Island school. (Her parents moved from South Carolina to the Ocean State when she was a baby.) "He introduced me to the arts. As did Doc Hutchinson...They all came to my wedding. They all come to my house," she said.

"Teachers were instrumental in changing my life. I'd like to take credit myself, but I don't think life works that way."

Her high school experience led her to a major in theater at Rhode Island College. She went on to Juilliard's celebrated drama program.

For too long a spell, though, a Viola Davis moment was relegated to the stage. Then came 11 minutes of Davis going head to head with Meryl Streep in "Doubt." She portrays a mother, Mrs. Miller, trying to protect her son from the devil she knows — not the demon Streep's character insists the parish priest is.

Out in the chill of a New York apartment complex, Mrs. Miller's eyes tear up. Her nose runs. It may have been the cold but it was also the emotion of muted desperation. With one transfixing scene, she was nominated for a best supporting Oscar.

Then she was cast as Aibileen Clark in the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's "The Help," set in Jackson, Miss. The material is complicated but Davis' turn as a housekeeper all too aware of, but not defeated by, her second-class citizenship was brilliantly muted and measured.

So about that bedeviling gesture Davis conjured in "Fences"? Well, she won the Tony in 2010 for best performance. And she is no stranger to the shadow and light, the rigors and joys in August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, including "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," King Hedley II," "Seven Guitars" and "Fences."

"He's up there with the greatest American writers ever. I did those plays because, once again, he chronicled life — 10 decades of life for African-Americans. But he did it by creating regular human beings. Arthur Miller did the same thing with 'Death of a Salesman' and 'View from the Bridge.' "

Director Bellamy recalls her Tony-winning turn in "King Hedley II," on Broadway in 2001.

"The monologue in King Hedley II?" he said rhetorically. "She rocked it."

Why doesn't this come as a surprise?

Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, lkennedy@denverpost.com or twitter.com/bylisakennedy