Viola Davis on the Prospect of Becoming the Most Nominated Black Actress in Oscars History

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Angelique Jackson
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With her critically acclaimed performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Viola Davis is primed to become the most nominated Black actress in Oscars history. Though Davis’ name (and her rousing acceptance speeches) has become synonymous with the very notion of awards season, the celebrated actor is quick to point out the reality that this record is one that should’ve been set long ago.

“For me, it’s a reflection of the lack of opportunities and access to opportunities people of color have had in this business,” she says. “If me, going back to the Oscars four times in 2021, makes me the most nominated Black actress in history, that’s a testament to the sheer lack of material there has been out there for artists of color.”

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Davis currently shares the record for the most nominated Black actress in the history of the Academy Awards, tied with close friend Octavia Spencer with three nods apiece. Both women have a supporting actress trophy at home (Davis won in 2017 for “Fences,” while Spencer won in 2012 for “The Help”).

The only other Black actress with multiple Oscar nods is Whoopi Goldberg, who has been recognized twice, nominated for best actress in 1986 for “The Color Purple” and winning the best supporting actress prize in 1991 for “Ghost.” The late Cicely Tyson earned an Oscar nod in 1972 for “Sounder” and an honorary Oscar in 2018.

Of the awards season maelstrom, Davis says, “I have to make it mean something. I do. If I just saw it as a moment for me to sort of puff up my own ego, I think that that would last for 10 seconds or less. It’s a platform. It’s another microphone. It’s another opportunity to open my mouth and speak a really fundamental truth about Hollywood and this business, and, really, America.”

Of course, this year’s ceremonies will inevitably be different, as they unfold amid the ongoing pandemic. There are logistical questions about what sort of hybrid virtual and in person broadcasts might take shape, but Davis is hopeful that the award season landscape will change in a more significant way.

“It’s always great to have the escapism of friendly competition, but at the end of the day, there are a lot deeper issues going on than whether we’re going to have the Oscars, or the Golden Globes, or the SAG Awards in person or virtually,” she says. “My fantasy is that people, that artists, understand that there is no separation with what we do, and what’s going on in the world. I’m actually really excited to see how that takes shape — how people speak their truths, even in their acceptance speeches, how they deal with getting golden statues and what they do with their power now.”

In evaluating the awards season, Davis points out that there’s a larger picture at play when it comes to who gets nominated for what.

“Am I grateful that I absolutely have gotten to that point in my life after everything that I’ve been through, and my path, my journey? I’m very grateful for that, extraordinarily so. But I just can’t express enough how important it is to lead a life of vision and purpose,” Davis says. “The conversation that no one is having, the sort of cognitive discussions that people are not having is the process to getting there — the tools and the access that was given to these artists, in order to get to a place where their work can be seen.”

She explains: “When you start having those conversations, you see what a huge deficit and huge discrepancy is still out there for artists of color, which is why a lot of times we don’t have a seat at the table. It’s not because we don’t have the talent, it’s not because we’re not working hard. It’s because of fundamental truths that we are not given the same permission, tools and everything that we need to even start on the same level, or to be on the same playing field.”

“There are a lot of white actresses out there, who are fairly young — in their 20s or 30s, who have been to the Academy Awards just as many times as me or more than me,” the 55-year-old star continues. “It is a reflection of their talent — but it’s also a reflection of their opportunities. That’s what it is. It’s a reflection of how they had the chance — those three, four or five roles that were so good that brought them to that place. [Being a Black actress] is like having a fabulous body, but not having the right clothes to show it off.”

In evaluating the number of nominations for contemporary actresses, for comparison’s sake — in 2016, Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence set a record as the youngest person to earn four nominations at age 25. In 2020, Saoirse Ronan became the second-youngest to earn four nods; she was also 25, but a few months older than Lawrence was at the time of her fourth nomination. Oscar-winner Kate Winslet (who currently has seven nods) was the youngest actress to reach five nominations; she was 31 when she was recognized for 2006’s “Little Children.”

Oscar winners Jodie Foster, Renee Zellweger, Holly Hunter, Diane Keaton, Nicole Kidman, Emma Thompson and Helen Mirren have also earned four nominations each, as have perennial nominees Annette Bening and Michelle Williams. Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, and Jane Fonda all have seven nods, while Glenn Close could pull ahead of her contemporaries with an eighth nomination for “Hillbilly Elegy.” The most nominated actress in the history of the Academy Awards is (Davis’ friend and “Doubt” co-star) Meryl Streep, with a seemingly unmatchable 21 total nods.

In terms of finding solutions to Hollywood’s disparities, Davis has taken the reins into her own hands when it comes to her career. Davis formed her JuVee Productions banner, with husband Julius Tennon in 2011, to create more opportunities for herself and other creators of color to tell more authentic and progressive stories and to challenge the status quo when it comes to representation of Black people onscreen.

But as far as reforming the system at large, Davis offers this: “Two things need to happen. People who are on the periphery need to not be so frightened that they’re going to lose the opportunity, that they don’t open their mouth and speak their truth. And the people who are in a position of power need to listen and to have the bravery and the courage to step out of their comfort zone and make those changes.”

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