Viola Davis has broken new ground for Black actresses at the Academy Awards.
The 55-year-old performer received her fourth career acting nomination (for her work as the titular character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) on Monday morning and, in doing so, broke the record for the most number of overall acting nominations for a Black actress in Hollywood history — and became the only Black woman with two Best Actress nominations.
Davis’ achievement in the Best Actress category — following past nods for Doubt, The Help, and her victory for Fences — breaks a tie she previously shared with her longtime friend Octavia Spencer, who has three nominations (Hidden Figures, The Shape of Water, and a win for The Help) to her credit. Whoopi Goldberg is the only other Black actress with more than one Oscar nomination for acting, for her performances in The Color Purple and Ghost — the latter of which won the Academy Award in 1991.
“For me, it’s a reflection of the lack of opportunities and access to opportunities people of color have had in this business,” Davis told Variety of the milestone in a recent interview. “If me, going back to the Oscars four times in 2021, makes me the most nominated Black actress in history, that’s a testament to the sheer lack of material there has been out there for artists of color.”
The most-nominated Black performer of all time remains Denzel Washington, who has eight Oscar nominations (including two wins) as an actor atop a nomination for Best Picture for his work producing Fences. Morgan Freeman follows with five nominations (including one win) to date.
Gone With the Wind actress Hattie McDaniel became the first Black performer to be nominated for (and win) an Oscar in Academy Awards history, when her role in Victor Fleming’s controversial drama at the 1940 ceremony. Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) remains the only Black woman to have an Oscar for Best Actress, though six performances from five women have received nominations in the category since her 2002 victory, including Davis (The Help and Ma Rainey), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Ruth Negga (Loving), and Cynthia Erivo (Harriet).
Speaking to EW on her preparation to play real-life singer Ma Rainey in George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play, Davis said her physical transformation played a key role in becoming the character.
“You can look at it and you can have your vanity walk into the room before you and say, ‘No. I want to look cuter.’ Or, ‘I want to not have the gold teeth because it may be distracting,'” she said. “But I’m one of those artists that absolutely believe that the way that you honor that character and that human being is by embracing every aspect of who they are.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.
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