'The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are, and I just recently embraced that at 51,' she said

By Joey Nolfi
December 12, 2016 at 03:50 AM EST
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For her 20-year career spent portraying strong female characters across a diverse range of television hits and major motion pictures, acclaimed star Viola Davis became the first actress in history to receive the Association of National Advertisers’ #SeeHer Award at Sunday’s Critics Choice Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. 

Ahead of what’s widely expected to be a bountiful road to the Oscars for the Fences performer, Davis received the honor — bestowed as part of an ongoing ANA campaign aimed at improving the image of all women and girls in media — after an impassioned introduction from her Doubt costar, Amy Adams, who praised Davis’ on-screen presence as essential to the evolving identity of femininity in mainstream entertainment. 

“We look for heroes, we look for role models, ” Adams said of the nation’s relationship to film and television shows. “Media and entertainment play such a key role in how women and girls see themselves. It’s important that we make sure they are portrayed as they are in real life. There are women at NASA, in Congress, and on the Supreme Court. They run board rooms and families and even aspire to the nation’s highest offices… Viola believes that you don’t live someone else’s life, someone else’s idea of what womanhood is. Womanhood is everything that’s inside of you.” 

Davis then accepted the award to a sustained standing ovation from the audience after a montage of her work played onscreen. 

“It’s hard to accept being a role model for women when you’re trying to lose weight,” she joked. “I’ve always discovered the heart of my characters, I guess, by asking ‘Why?’ When I was handed Annalise Keating, I said, ‘She’s sexy, she’s mysterious; I’m used to playing women where you gotta gain 40 pounds and wear an apron. I gotta lose weight. I gotta learn how to walk like Kerry Washington in heels. I gotta lose my belly. And then I asked myself, ‘Well, why do I have to do all of that?’

The crowd erupted with applause at the sentiment.

“I truly believe the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are, and I just recently embraced that at 51. I think my strongest power is that, at 10 every Thursday night, I want you to come into my world. I am not going to come into yours. You come into my world and you sit with me — my size, my hue, my age — and you sit, and you experience. I think that’s the only power I have as an artist, so I thank you for this award and I do see her, just like I see me. Thank you.” 

In 2016 alone, Davis starred in three films; she played Judge Martha Sherman, who presides over a court case revolving around a woman seeking to keep her children in the Tribeca-premiering James Lapine drama Custody, and appeared as part of the ensemble cast of Warner Bros.’ superhero blockbuster Suicide Squad as DC Comics character Amanda Waller. In Denzel Washington’s August Wilson adaptation Fences, scheduled for theatrical release on Dec. 16, Davis has a supporting role as the wife of an aging sanitation worker and ex-Negro League baseball player grappling with the ghosts of her family’s past (and the emotional demons of their present) amid racial tensions in 1950s Pittsburgh. In September, Davis also returned to ABC as the headliner of the network’s How to Get Away with Murder, a crime drama from executive producer Shonda Rhimes.

Before her 2016 nomination for Fences, Davis received three other notices from the Broadcast Film Critics Association; she won their Best Actress prize for her performance in 2011’s The Help, and was nominated individually and as part of the acting ensemble of 2008’s Doubt. Though she has received two Academy Award nominations — for Doubt and The Help — it is her work in Fences, in which she depicts a character she won a Tony for playing in 2010, that is predicted to win the South Carolina native her first Oscar in February. 

Spearheaded by the ANA, the #SeeHer movement seeks to improve the way women and girls are represented in the entertainment and advertising industries, so they can “see themselves reflected as they truly are,” according to the initiative’s website. ANA membership exceeds 15,000 brands that collectively spend or support over $300 billion in marketing per year, with #SeeHer advocating for the visibility of a broader range of ages, races, and body types of women in media.

Watch Davis’ full speech above. For a full list of Critics Choice Award winners, click here.

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