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 alongside Denzel Washington‘s in the big-screen adaptation of August Wilson Fences translating for the big screen the same stage role that won her a 2010 Tony Award, 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.
After thanking the Academy, Davis delivered an emotionally charged speech.
“There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place — and that’s the graveyard,” she began. “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.’ I became an artist and thank god I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
In addition to honoring the film’s late screenwriter, she thanked the producers, including her costar and director.
“Oh captain, my captain; Denzel Washington, thank you for putting two entities in the driving seat: August and God. They served you well.”
She capped off the stunning speech with kind words to her parents, Dan and Mary Alice, whom she describes as “the center of my universe. The people who taught me good or bad, how to fail, how to love, how to hold an award and how to lose … I’m so thankful god chose you to bring me into this world.”
By the time she left the stage, there was barely a dry eye in the auditorium—a fact that was duly noted by host Jimmy Kimmel. “Viola Davis, she just got nominated for an Emmy for that speech, it was so good,” he cracked.
Davis, 51, received an outpouring of support for her first Oscar win after three nominations, including a congratulatory tweet from Oprah Winfrey, who called the win moments before Davis took to the stage.
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.
She told reporters in the press room after her win: “It’s not my style to just wake up and go, ‘Oh I’m an Oscar winner, oh my gosh, let me go for a run!’ I’m good with it, I’ll have some mac ‘n’ cheese and I’ll go back to washing my daughter’s hair tomorrow night.”
And that groundedness, she said, has deep roots. “I can’t believe my life. My sister is here. I grew up in poverty. I grew up in apartments that were condemned and rat-infested and I always wanted to be somebody. I just wanted to be good at something, so this is sort of like the miracle of God … I’m overwhelmed.”
She added, “At 51, I’m sort of loving me.”
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.”
The 89th Annual Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, are airing live from Los Angeles on ABC.
- With reporting by GABRIELLE OLYA