Together with Mahershala Ali’s win for best supporting actor in Moonlight, Davis’ win is tying for the Oscar record of most Black performers to win in a single year. Should a third African American win tonight in the acting slots, it will be the first time in Oscar history. In previous years, no more than two have won in the acting categories. Those years include 2007 when Forest Whitaker took best actor for The Last King of Scotland and Jennifer Hudson won best supporting actress for Dreamgirls; 2005 when Jamie Foxx won best actor for Ray and Morgan Freeman took best supporting actor for Million Dollar Baby, and 2002 when Denzel Washington won for best actor for Training Day and Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball.
Davis came close to winning the last time she was here at the Oscars for her turn in The Help. In fact, she won best actress at the Screen Actors Guild awards in 2012 for that movie, but her former Doubt co-star Meryl Streep wound up taking home the Oscar for The Iron Lady.
Since Davis entered the race, it was clear that she was destined to take home the Oscar. What surprised many was that she was not competing in the best actress category, as she was obviously the sole, leading lady in Fences. But the movie centered around Washington’s hardened, working class Troy Maxson in Pittsburgh, PA who trades in a burgeoning career as a baseball player for work as a trash collector. Davis is his dutiful, understanding wife Rose Maxons who endures an emotional toll as she contends with Troy’s tirades and philandering.
In addition to The Help, in which she plays a southern nanny to a white household during the Civil Rights era, Davis was also nominated in the best supporting category for 2008’s Doubt, another feature adaptation of a play. Previously, Davis won a 2015 Emmy for her best actress drama role on How to Get Away With Murder.
In her speech, Davis, said, “There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered, and that’s the graveyard.”
The actress said she always asked (by people), “‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ I say exhume those bodies and the stories of the people who dream big, and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist, and thank God I did. We’re the only profession who celebrates to live a life. So here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exulted the ordinary people.”