Viola Davis' Most Game-Changing Roles on Film, TV and Stage

The powerhouse actress is the first Black woman to win an Emmy, Tony and Academy Award for acting

01 of 11

Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

(2020) ma raineys black bottom
David Lee/Netflix

Davis' performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom earned the actress Critics Choice, Golden Globe, Academy Award and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (she won that one!).

She also won the NAACP Image Award for her performance as Ma Rainey, a real-life blues singer.

02 of 11

Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder

Viola Davis iconic roles
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER - Stay Strong, Mama - Annalise forges ahead with her class action lawsuit and receives help from a former colleague. Meanwhile, Laurel continues to investigate her fathers company; Asher confronts Michaela about her odd behavior; and details about Isaacs past are revealed, on How to Get Away with Murder, THURSDAY, NOV. 2 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Television Network. (Mitch Haaseth/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images) VIOLA DAVIS. Mitch Haaseth/Walt Disney Television via Getty

Davis made history when she won an Emmy Award in 2015 for her performance as the formidable lawyer and professor Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder. She was the first woman of color to win the Emmy for lead actress in a drama series.

"The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity," Davis said in her acceptance speech. "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

She was nominated again for the role in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

03 of 11

Tonya in King Hedley II

Viola Davis iconic roles
Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

Pictured here with playwright August Wilson, Davis won her first Tony Award in 2001 for her role in King Hedley II. She snagged the award for best featured actress in a play.

04 of 11

Rose Maxson in Fences

Viola Davis iconic roles
David Lee/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

Davis appeared opposite Denzel Washington in Fences, both on Broadway and in film. Both impeccable performances as matriarch Rose Maxson were lauded by critics and audiences, with the actress winning a Tony Award for her performance on stage in 2010 and an Academy Award for the same role in the 2016 film.

With her Oscar win, Davis made history again, becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy, Oscar and Tony Award.

05 of 11

Eva May in Antwone Fisher

Viola Davis iconic roles
20th Century Fox

Before they costarred in Fences, Davis and Washington worked together on the film Antwone Fisher, which was also Washington's directorial debut. In the 2002 biographical drama, Davis plays the absent mother of the titular character.

06 of 11

Mrs. Miller in Doubt

Viola Davis iconic roles

Davis' role in Doubt is proof that there are no small parts. Though only on screen for one 10-minute scene (alongside Meryl Streep), her performance as the mother of a boy who is possibly being sexually abused earned her an Oscar nomination.

Davis worked hard to get the role, telling Screen Anarchy, "...I heard they had secured Meryl Streep. I thought, 'I have a chance at this role. I can solicit myself — which I never do — so I picked up the script four months in advance, phoned my manager and said, 'I really want an audition.' Now probably every other actress would say, 'I want the role,' but I just said, 'I want an audition.'"

She continued, "Every Black actress in America auditioned. I finally made it to the short list of seven. They screen tested in New York. They paraded us in full costume, hair, everything. Seven Mrs. Millers! They carted us into a room with the producers, the director and the full crew to do the scene and I found out maybe an hour and a half later that I got it. I felt like I had won $150,000,000 in the lottery; that was the feeling."

07 of 11

Moselle in Out of Sight

Viola Davis iconic roles
Universal Pictures

In one of Davis' first films, the actress played the small but memorable role of Moselle, the wife of a criminal (played by Don Cheadle) in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight. The role ended up becoming her first of several Soderbergh's films, as she went on to act in Traffic (2000), Ocean's Eleven (2001), and Solaris (2002).

08 of 11

Susie Brown in Get On Up

Viola Davis iconic roles
D Stevens/Imagine/Jagged/Wyolah/Kobal/Shutterstock

Aged up with makeup and a wig, Davis played Susie Davis, mother of the legendary soul singer James Brown, in the 2014 biopic.

09 of 11

Nancy Birch in Prisoners

Viola Davis iconic roles
Alcon Entertainment/Kobal/Shutterstock

Davis plays the mother of a missing girl in the 2013 crime thriller, Prisoners, alongside Terrence Howard, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

10 of 11

Veronica in Widows

Viola Davis iconic roles
Merrick Morton/Shutterstock

No one plays a badass quite like Davis, and her role in Widows alongside Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki is as badass as they come. After their husbands are killed in a heist gone wrong, the women have to pick up where they left off, lead by none other than Davis' character, Veronica.

Davis said of her role in the Steve McQueen film, "People try to be too nice with women. They keep them pretty. They keep them likable. They cater to male fantasies. They cater to the male gaze. This film didn't do that."

11 of 11

Delia Shiraz in Eat Pray Love

Viola Davis iconic roles

Oh, how we wish that we were besties with Davis so that she, too, could give us the advice we so desperately need. And yes, Julia Roberts' character ignores her advice in the film, but we would never do that. Never!

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