Actress Viola Davis has applauded the courage of teachers who protested outside the New York premiere of her controversial new drama Won't Back Down.

In the upcoming movie Davis and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal play desperate mothers fighting to reform their children's failing inner city school after growing unsatisfied with the local education system.

the movie has upset some teachers because they feel it portrays them in a bad light - and dozens of union members took to the streets on Sunday (23Sep12) to air their outrage, holding signs with phrases like, "Won't Back Down get out of town."

But despite the added chaos at the premiere, Davis insists she wasn't insulted by their presence and only hopes the activists understand the cast and crew were not trying to be disrespectful.

During an appearance on U.S. breakfast show Today on Monday (24Sep12), she said, "I welcome protest. I welcome discourse. I think discourse is a good thing, I think it spearheads change, I think we saw that in the '60s. That's why we enjoy some of the privileges we do today. And you know what, in this movie, the teacher, at the of the day, is the hero. They save the day."

And Davis is no stranger to discourse herself - the actress was once jailed as a toddler after her activist mum staged a protest at Rhode Island's Brown University in favour of welfare reform.