It has become increasingly common for actors to talk about migrating from movies to television because the roles (not to mention the stability of the work) are better.


Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in “The Help.” (Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

For female actresses like Diane Kruger (“The Bridge”), television offers opportunities to play parts that are “so well-written and unafraid,” in contrast to the shrinking opportunities in film. For established stars like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, longtime friends and collaborators who starred in the first season of “True Detective,” television can be a chance to deepen a commitment to characters and to try something new with old partners.

But even given this conversation, Viola Davis’s comments about why she was returning to television as the lead in “How to Get Away With Murder,” a new ABC series, were a sharp shot at what the movies have to offer even the best, most beloved African American actresses.

“I have gotten so many wonderful film roles, but I’ve gotten even more film roles where I haven’t been the show,” Viola Davis said at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles. “It’s like I’ve been invited to a really fabulous party only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show.”

It was a striking admission from an actress who has been twice nominated for Academy Awards: for “Doubt,” where she played a mother whose son may be the object of clergy sexual abuse, and “The Help,” in which she was a domestic worker who finds her voice as a writer. Davis has two Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards for her stage performances.

But despite these accomplishments, she said she wanted more out of the characters she was given.

“I spent too much time in my career just trying to force writers to write for me in a way that was bold,” she told critics.

Davis thanked Pete Norwalk, the creator of  “How to Get Away With Murder,” for giving her a role that allowed her to be alternately commanding, personally messy and sexual. As a law professor whose ruthless attitude (and catchy course title) have perhaps too much of an influence on her students, Davis gets to chew scenery in flashy classroom sequences, display her professional acumen in the courtroom and balance a husband and a lover.

Davis has been blunt before about her career prospects, even at times when she might appear to be at the top of her game. “I’m a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn’t look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time,” Davis mused in a roundtable of Oscar-nominated actresses from 2012, when she was in contention for “The Help.”

Despite some of the challenges she has faced, she seems unlikely to quit film for television entirely. She has four upcoming movies either complete or in production, including the high-concept romantic comedy “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” and the revenge drama “Lila and Eve,” in which she co-stars with Jennifer Lopez.

“How to Get Away With Murder” may give Davis range, but it’s also more a pulpy pleasure than a prestige project. Its most significant impact on Davis’s career may be as counterexample or bargaining chip whenever someone offers her a thinly written or marginal movie role. If filmmakers do not believe that Davis can sell a sex scene or command a room, going forward, that ignorance will be on them, not on her.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.