Viola Davis on films: ‘Escapism… destroys our art form’

Viola Davis most recently played Michelle Obama in The First Lady mini series on Showtime. She also executive produced a couple of the episodes. Viola and her husband, Julius Tennon, have their own production company, JuVee Productions, and recently appeared at a conference. Viola talked a bit about the idea of movies as a form of escapism and how social media defines it. She thinks the idea of escapism is detrimental to movies.

Oscar winner Viola Davis says social media has undermined her art form, especially as it relates to modern theatrical movies.

The “Fences” and “The First Lady” actor delivered a blunt and juicy indictment of what it takes to market films nowadays. In a conversation about her content label JuVee at the annual Produced By Conference on Saturday, Davis discussed the notion of escapism at the cineplex and how tentpole movies can erode the nuance of storytelling.

“Social media has taken over the defining of this art form. I think that the word ‘escapism’ is something that is interesting — the goal all of us have is to sit in a movie with the popcorn and Sour Patch Kids and forget about our lives — but, literally, it destroys our art form,” she said.

Davis explained that her tween daughter consumes big commercial fare like Marvel, which Davis says she’s a fan of, but “every time you’re in a room selling a narrative, it’s about how much you can create a story that allows us to escape. The characters then become a Mr. Potato Head, become Bobble Heads. We forget who these people are really until a movie comes along and blows our mind.”

[From Variety]

I may be missing her point about what Viola says about social media taking over and defining movies. Perhaps she’s talking about how some characters aren’t complex and are simply boiled down to memes? That definitely makes sense for some of the Marvel movies she references and probably can even be extended to the actors as well. But, I think Viola’s point about escapism is a bit more nuanced and very accurate. If we’re just using movies/media as a mechanism to escape our own lives, how much are we actually absorbing of the storytelling? And of the acting? I think we all do this — put something on to distract ourselves and sort of mindlessly watch it without truly paying attention to it and therefore the work that’s been put into it. I’m definitely guilty of this and it’s annoying to “watch” something and not really remember it. That’s a case for the rewatch if I ever heard one.

Photos credit: and Instar

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22 Responses to “Viola Davis on films: ‘Escapism… destroys our art form’”

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  1. lunchcoma says:

    Hmm. This is complicated. I think that it’s gotten to the point that the Marvel movies are dominating and there’s not a lot of room for or interest in other forms of entertainment at the theater. But I don’t think that “escapism” is to blame. There have always been popcorn movies.

    There’s maybe something to say about the fact that the popcorn movies don’t have a ton of variation anymore. There’s definitely something to say about the death of the mid budget drama and the romcom at the theater. But I don’t think escapism is the issue. I think a lot of it is just the change in theatergoing habits, which may make the small screen more suited for those stories than the big one.

    • IForget says:

      Well said, you articulated it better than I ever could! I have adhd and I much prefer tv shows over films. I love a good podcast or music as well, because I’m able to stim at the same time. If I’m watching a film, I find there are things I can easily miss if I’m not paying full attention the whole time, whereas I can watch an episode of tv and have it hold my attention.

    • Betsy says:

      This is so well put.

    • FHMom says:

      I’ve come to the conclusion that the only movies I want to see in theater are big budget Marvel type escape films. If there is ACTING involved, I would rather watch on my big screen tv. That is not what the movie world wants to hear, but it is the truth for me and a lot of people.

  2. Xennialista says:

    Escapism is not an issue. Movies are not real life. This is when actors lose me. Calm down, you aren’t saving lives. If I’m going to see a movie, it’s because I’m disengaging from the real world and want to be entertained.

    • Colby says:

      I tend to agree here. I get it, it’s her craft and how she pays her bills. She needs to take it seriously.

      But come on. Not every movies has to make us deeply contemplate the human condition or be emotional torture p*rn. Sometimes you just want to turn your brain off. And that’s ok.

      Highly recommend Great British Bake Off for visual Valium 🙂

    • Betsy says:

      This comment is also so well put!

      I don’t want to elevate the golden age of Hollywood (it doesn’t need it) but they managed to make fare that was both escapist and really well done. No one in the Depression needed to have their nose rubbed in reality and I don’t think many people right now do, either.

  3. Colby says:

    I get what she’s saying for sure – leaning too much into brain dead movies/TV is not good for the art of acting.

    However, some of us out here are really f*cking struggling and just need a break, and “Fences” ain’t it. Sometimes you want “How to Get Away with Murder”

  4. Snuffles says:

    I’m starting to get sick of people dunking on Marvel. Yeah, a lot of it is popcorn escapism (which considering the hell the world is going through, it’s something very welcome). But a lot of it tackles some deep topics and provides much needed representation.

    WandaVision was a study in grief in a very clever package. Falcon and the Winter Soldier was about should a black man even want to be Captain America after everything America has done to black people. When Sam met Isiah Bradley and learned about what he had been through by the US military after serving for them was devastating.

    And as far as representation goes, super heroes like Black Panther, Shang Chi and Muslim Pakastani Miss Marvel allows under represented populations see themselves as the hero.

    Honestly, I think a big part of their complaints is not that Marvel is detrimental to the art form, it’s that Marvel has a chokehold on the box office which makes it harder for the more complicated movies to get the green light. But, riddle me this, TV and streaming services are not having that problem. Why?

    • Betsy says:

      It’s just that there’s so little else.

      • Snuffles says:

        That’s not true at all. There is something for everyone. Granted, a lot of it is pretty niche, but all kinds of stories are being told. Maybe being niche is the problem for some people. They want that Marvel money and attention and they’re not getting it.

    • North of Boston says:

      Well said Snuffles!

    • CourtneyB says:

      Thank you! I love the marvel movies and get they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. But they’re well made, well acted and super entertaining. Hollywood has ALWAYS made these types of movies going back to their beginnings. And they’re not mindless either. Many have things to say dressed up in superhero dressing, just like comics and graphic novels themselves. Not everything needs to be Serious Art. Viola did the DCEU movies, at least 2, maybe it was a disappointing experience. Plus Suicide squad was were Leto was all ‘method’ and was really gross.

  5. SarahCS says:

    From a personal perspective these days I typically use films and books to escape reality for a while. My life is far from terrible but it’s all been a lot for the last few years at a macro and micro level. I life non fiction about historical stuff and fiction that’s a decent way away from reality. Although I recently re-discovered John Wyndhams books (The Midwich Cuckoos, etc.) and he asks some very interesting philosophical what if questions in his writing.

    Anyway, should we stop creating things that challenge us and require the viewer/reader to do some work? Absolutely not, it’s just probably not for ms right now.

  6. Honey says:

    Perhaps some of her quotes are taken out of context, but it’s my opinion that escapist and movies with intent to make viewers think and analyze can co-exist. 2022 media choices offer huge arrays of choices, so a viewer can pick their poison. I’m not really connecting the dots with social media here, either. But Ms. Davis is a lovely person and talented performer — would love more clarification.

  7. dawnchild says:

    She makes a valid point about the detrimental nature of big budget movies (that depend on visual bang) on the art of theatrical storytelling, but I agree with the other posters that human bandwidth for consuming entertainment is dictated by what else is going on in their lives. If lives are hard and scraping by, then of course many people want to escape into something else.

    But good movies can also entertain, attach our imaginations and emotions…like a good book can.
    On a superficial note…I love her style! 🙂

  8. jferber says:

    SarahCS, I was just about to say just this. I just read Middlemarch and loved it and am almost finished with The Mill on the Floss. I’m not reading the ending right now because I deliberately read a spoiler and can’t bear to go through this with poor Maggie Tulliver. What’s great about movies and books is that they can be escapist, they can be great art, they can be anything. I’m not speaking about movies that feature Mr. Potato Head on the regular (but for fun sometimes, why not?) The great philosopher Horace said art is to instruct and entertain. Olivia Davis is a true artist, so I’m happy to hear what she thinks are crappy movies. I get that. But escapism is sometimes just what the doctor ordered (especially for our mental health).

  9. Pineapple says:

    Honestly I’m really sick of these arteeeesstts crapping on escapism/fun media that isn’t serious. the world is so hard. people are struggling. Sorry people don’t want to watch movies about “real” issues. These fun art projects for these actors and directors are about OUR lives. get a grip. I have to be in really specific mood to watch something with more serious or nuanced themes. after a hard day at work i want to ease my mind, and however someone does that is valid. It reminds me of Martin Scorsese complaining that no one wants to watch his 83 hour long movie about old men killing other old men.

  10. jferber says:

    I recently watched and loved King Richard, The Power of the Dog and The Lost Daughter. I also enjoyed the reality series Legendary and the first episode of Ms. Marvel on Disney Plus. I saw Easter Parade with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire on the Criterion Channel and loved the dancing, singing and Technicolor. I think it’s good to enjoy a whole range of things.

  11. The Recluse says:

    I get where Viola Davis is coming from (and she’s a national treasure), but some of our classic films could be considered escapist, although the best of them are now considered ART. The Astaire/Rogers films were pure entertainment back in the day, but now, they’re considered art as well. There’s a reason George Balanchine said that Astaire was our greatest dancer back in the day. Casablanca is another one. Pure, if timely entertainment at the time, but now…CLASSIC. The Red Shoes is a film that straddled the lines of entertainment and art and I love it.
    We’re in a hell of a fix these days in this world and sometimes we just want to set aside everything that stresses us and go on an adventure, something that books provided back in the day. We saw Jurassic World today and it was diverting, a popcorn film, but now we’re at home absorbing the dire situation in Ukraine and the January 6th testimony. Personally, my coping mechanisms involve writing fantasy novels (I’m working on two right now) and painting (mythological symbolism). I guess it’s all a form of useful escapism.