Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis just capped a landmark year for diversity in the awards race.
Both performers took their first Oscar trophies in the supporting categories Sunday, marking the first time since the 2007 ceremony that more than one black actor has won a competitive Academy Award on the same night; Mahershala Ali triumphed for his work in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, while Davis nabbed her first Oscar for her co-starring turn as Rose Maxson in Denzel Washington’s August Wilson adaptation Fences — a role that won her a Tony Award in 2010.
As if the win weren’t special enough for Ali, who also welcomed his first child this week, he is now in a distinguished class of award winners alongside his role model, Washington, who he says is “on par with the very best.”
“And he looks like you too, you know, in that, wow, there’s somebody who could be an uncle of mine. Those are things that play in your mind as you move forward,” Ali, 43, told reporters backstage after his win. “Also what I love about Denzel is not that he’s a great black actor — he’s a great actor. I’ve never looked at myself as a black actor. I’m an actor who happens to be African American. But I just want an opportunity to respond to material and bring whatever I bring to it in some unique fashion.”
Washington — who this year lost in the best actor category to Manchester by the Sea‘s Casey Affleck — previously made Oscars history in 2002, when he and Halle Berry became the first black performers to win both of the Academy’s lead acting awards on the same evening. Since then, the Academy has awarded more than one actor of color on the same night three times; in 2005 (Jamie Foxx for best actor, Morgan Freeman for best supporting actor), 2007 (Forest Whitaker for best actor, Jennifer Hudson for best supporting actress), and 2017.
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins also won for the screenplay he co-wrote with Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the movie is based upon. That made them the night’s fourth and fifth black winners of the night. (Jenkins was also nominated for his direction; La La Land‘s Damien Chazelle took home that honor. And while Moonlight did win Best Picture, none of the producers are black.)
On Oscar nominations morning, Davis became the first black actress to score three acting nominations. In landing her second nomination, Hidden Figures‘ Octavia Spencer — Davis’ fellow competitor among this year’s best supporting actress set — became the first black actress in history to receive a follow-up nomination after winning an Academy Award.
Ali and Davis won their Oscars amid the Academy’s increasing attempts to evolve its voting ranks following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, as AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs spearheaded a campaign to diversify the organization’s membership in January 2016. As part of the ongoing initiative, the Academy invited a record number of new participants, extending offers to 683 film industry professionals from 59 countries. Forty-six percent of invitees were female, while 41 percent were people of color.
“People ask me all the time, ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost,” Davis said during her acceptance speech. “I became an artist, and thank god I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. So here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”
Outside the acting races, four of the Academy’s 2017 nominees for best picture revolved around characters of color; Garth Davis’ Lion, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and Washington’s Fences.