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Oscar-winner Viola Davis has been dealing with severe criticism for her portrayal of former first lady Michelle Obama. The harsh comments by audiences and critics alike come as a surprise as the acclaimed actor has been Hollywood’s darling throughout her highly-successful career. Now Davis is pushing back at critics, claiming they are insignificant in the wake of their comments.  

Viola Davis’ incredible career

Viola Davis Michelle Obama
Viola Davis attends Showtime’s FYC Event and Premiere for “The First Lady” at DGA Theater Complex on April 14, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. | Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Perhaps best known for her role in the Shonda Rhimes series How to Get Away With Murder, Davis has had an impressive career full of complex characters. She received her first Academy Award nomination for her role in 2008’s Doubt. Davis then went on to star in 2011’s The Help

In 2014, she played musical icon James Brown’s mother in Get on Up. In 2016 she took on the role of Denzel Washington’s character’s wife, Rose, in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Fences. Davis portrayed blues legend, Ma Rainey, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom four years later. At present, she is preparing to star in an upcoming biopic about Harriet Tubman. 

In April 2022, The First Lady premiered. The Showtime series stars Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, and, of course, Davis as Obama.

What critics are saying about Viola Davis’ portrayal of Michelle Obama

Fans and critics alike are now slamming Viola Davis’ portrayal of Obama. Some claim the actor’s performance uses an exaggerated facial expression commonly referred to as “duckface.” Viewers claim Davis’ perpetually pursed lips are distracting and insulting, her tone and speech are wildly off from Obama’s, and saying she failed to represent the public figure adequately. As a result, The Daily Mail reports Davis has been “mercilessly ridiculed.”

Davis, for her part, told Entertainment Weekly that playing such a highly admired and recognizable character as Michelle Obama was “absolutely terrifying.” Davis added that, despite any of her other accomplishments in life, if she failed to represent Michelle Obama properly, it would be “a defining moment in [her] life.” She also feared serious backlash if her performance was off. 

How does ‘The First Lady’ star Viola Davis deal with criticism?


Viola Davis Became the First Black Woman to Win Triple Crown of Acting

Considering these comments, it is not hard to see why Davis seems downtrodden. “How do you move on from the hurt, from failure?” she mused in a BBC interview, calling the negative comments “incredibly hurtful.” But she didn’t take them lying down. 

“Critics absolutely serve no purpose,” she said of her detractors. “And I’m not saying that to be nasty either. They always feel like they’re telling you something that you don’t know.” She added, “It gives them an opportunity to be cruel to you.” 

Davis’ comments may have been directed at the ill-supported criticisms of social media. But her statement also belittles the role of professional critics, many of whom have contributed to The First Lady’s low rating on review sites like Rotten TomatoesFurthermore, while Davis is correct in saying that many on social media take the opportunity to be cruel, it is often a reliable way to take the pulse of public opinion. 

“Ultimately I feel like it is my job as a leader to make bold choices,” Davis concluded the interview. “Win or fail it is my duty to do that.” With this comment, she reveals her truest nod to the iconic woman she portrays in The First Lady