Viola Davis' Most Game-Changing Roles on Film, TV and Stage
The history-making, award-winning powerhouse actress is up for an Oscar for her role as the titular character in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Davis' performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom earned the actress Critics Choice, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (she won that one!). She is up for an Academy Award — her fourth nomination — on Sunday.
She also won the NAACP Image Award for her performance as Ma Rainey, a real-life blues singer.
Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder
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.
Tonya in King Hedley II
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.
Rose Maxson in Fences
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.
Eva May in Antwone Fisher
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.
Mrs. Miller in Doubt
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."
Moselle in Out of Sight
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).
Susie Brown in Get On Up
Aged up with makeup and a wig, Davis played Susie Davis, mother of the legendary soul singer James Brown, in the 2014 biopic.
Nancy Birch in Prisoners
Davis plays the mother of a missing girl in the 2013 crime thriller, Prisoners, alongside Terrence Howard, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Veronica in Widows
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."
Delia Shiraz in Eat Pray Love
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!