Viola Davis’ historic bid for her first Academy Award came to a close Sunday night, capping off with the actress winning a gilded statuette amid a monumental year for diversity in the awards race.
For her performance in Denzel Washington’s August Wilson adaptation, Fences, translating for the big screen the same stage role that won her a 2010 Tony Award on Broadway, Davis triumphed in the best supporting actress category, joining the likes of Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer, and Lupita Nyong’o as one of only seven black actresses to have won the same award since the Academy’s inaugural ceremony in 1929. The win also makes Davis one Grammy short of becoming an EGOT.
Accepting the honor at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, Davis said, “There’s one place where all the people with the greatest potential are gathered, and that’s the graveyard. 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 tell in love and lost. I became an artist and thank God I did because we are the only profession who celebrates what it means to live a life. So here’s to August Wilson who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people. Thanks for a movie that is about people and words and life and forgiveness and grace.”
The actress thanked her family in her emotional speech, praising her parents as “the people who taught me good or bad, how to fail, how to love, how to hold an award, how to lose … I’m so thankful God chose you to bring me into this world.” She also spoke to her husband and daughter, telling them, “You teach me everyday how to live, love. I’m so glad that you are the foundation of my life.”
She also thanked the Fences cast and her costar/director. “O Captain, my Captain, Denzel Washington: Thank you for putting two entities in the driving seat: August and God,” she said. “And they served you well.”
On Jan. 24, Davis became history’s first black actress to amass three Oscar nominations across the performative categories, having been nominated for her work in 2011’s The Help and 2008’s Doubt in the past.
This year, for the first time since 2006, women of color made up the majority of the Academy’s best supporting actress category. On Oscar nominations morning, Davis’ fellow nominee (and costar in The Help), Octavia Spencer, secured a nod for her performance in Hidden Figures, becoming the first black actress to nab a follow-up nomination after previously winning an Academy Award.
Davis also beat out Moonlight‘s Naomie Harris, previous winner Nicole Kidman (Lion), and four-time nominee Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea). On the precursor circuit, Davis emerged as the contender to beat, having taken major prizes from several critics groups and industry awards bodies. Her 2016-2017 awards haul includes an NAACP Image Award, a BAFTA Award, a Critics Choice Award, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, among others.
In the best picture-nominated drama Fences, Davis plays Rose Maxson, the resilient yet emotionally scarred wife of Troy (Washington), an aging sanitation worker and former Negro League baseball player who spends his days lamenting the past and cursing the present as he grapples with momentary vices while maintaining a family in 1950s Pittsburgh.
“She’s a woman who sacrificed a huge part of her dreams, her needs, and her desires to make her family work,” Davis told EW about the character. “And when everything comes crashing down, her response, her fight, is every woman’s fight. There’s nothing that she does in this piece that is not relatable.”