Viola Davis became the first black woman to receive three Academy Award nominations with her nod for a supporting role in “Fences,” based on August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning play.
Davis is no stranger to making history. In 2015, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for a lead actress in a drama series for her role as complicated law professor Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away With Murder.” “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that simply are not there,” she pointedly declared in her acceptance speech, which went viral.
Davis, who already won a Golden Globe for her “Fences” role, is a favorite to win the Oscar — and she’s known for giving awards show speeches that resonate. After her own emotional acceptance speech at the Globes ceremony, Davis got attention for her remarks introducing Meryl Streep, who received the lifetime achievement award and gave a resounding speech of her own.
“You make me proud to be an artist,” Davis told Streep, who also made history Tuesday with her 20th Oscar nomination. “You make me feel that what I have in me — my body, my face, my age — is enough.”
The admiration is mutual. Davis got her first Oscar nod for a brief but scene-stealing appearance (opposite Streep) in the 2008 film “Doubt.” While accepting the Screen Actors Guild Award for best actress, Streep called her co-star “gigantically gifted.” “My God, somebody give her a movie!” Streep said.
Davis got her second Oscar nod in 2012 for her role as a maid in the Southern period drama “The Help,” based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel. In a recent conversation with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the actress revealed that she “had a lot of issues” with the film.
“I knew it was a best-selling book and I knew it would change my career,” Davis said, adding that she “felt it was an important story.”
“I absolutely love the premise,” she continued. “I love the fact that Skeeter [the aspiring writer played by Emma Stone] said I am going to write a story from the maid’s perspective of what it feels like to work with these white women — operative term meaning the maid’s perspective. I don’t feel like it was from our perspective. That’s the problem I had with it. I had it from the very beginning.”
While detailing her frustrations with the book-turned-film, Davis revealed that a line that was cut from a scene featuring Clark and her fellow maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer, who won the best supporting actress Oscar), preparing food for a party. “Minny says, ‘Well, I gotta go out there and serve some food,” Davis recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, you serving crackers to the crackers.’ Cut! And it was cut because they felt it was too mean. But there was no problem with the white characters saying ‘n—, n—, n—.’”
Davis felt it was unrealistic for the black maids, who were subjected to substandard wages and constant derision, to avoid speaking harshly about their employers. “So it was not telling the story,” she added. “It just wasn’t.”
Davis has spoken highly of “Fences,” which is nominated for best picture and best screenplay. After her nomination was announced, Davis thanked the Academy for “recognizing this extraordinary, important film and my work in it.” She also thanked her co-star Denzel Washington, who directed and co-produced the film. Washington is up for best leading actor which, along with the best picture nod, brings his Oscar nomination total to eight, the most of any black actor. He won best supporting actor for the 1990 film “Glory” and best leading actor for “Training Day” in 2002.
In stark contrast with last year’s #OscarsSoWhite protests, black actors are well-represented among this year’s nominees. Davis is nominated alongside two other black women — “Moonlight” star Naomie Harris, and Spencer, who won the best supporting actress in 2012 for “The Help” and is nominated for her role in “Hidden Figures,” the film about black female mathematicians working at NASA in the 1960s.
Even if Davis wins the Oscar, don’t expect a statuette to change her work ethic.
“Every time I start a job, I always have the impostor syndrome — that this is going to be the job where people find out that I’m a hack,” Davis said in her BAFTA retrospective. “You gotta go back to work, man, and you can’t bring the award to work. It’s not going to play Annalise Keating.”
One thing we should expect if Davis finally takes home an Oscar? A really great speech.