After a difficult childhood and years of playing small roles, Viola Davis is finally a leading lady getting the recognition she deserves. With her third Oscar nomination this year, she has set the record for African-American women. She was also the first black woman to ever win an Emmy as a lead actress. She’s been nominated for and won many other awards, including Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and AAFCAs. She is using her platform to be a voice for women and especially for women like her, of a “certain age and a certain hue.” Viola says that she grew up hungry, poor, and ashamed. She was born on her grandmother’s farm in South Carolina, but spent most of her childhood in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Her father was a horse groomer and trainer and her mother was a maid and factory worker, as well as a civil rights activist.
Her love of acting developed during her time at Central Falls High School. After graduating, she studied acting at Rhode Island College and the Juilliard School. Her first role was a small part in The Substance of Fire in 1996. She built a long resume of similarly small minor roles in film and television over the next decade. She also worked in theater, including a Tony-nominated performance in King Hedley II on Broadway. The role that helped catapult her to the big time was her supporting role in Doubt in 2008, for which she received her first Oscar nomination. In 2011, she starred in The Help, for which she was nominated for a Leading Actress Oscar. In 2014, she was tapped by Shonda Rhimes to play the lead role of powerful attorney Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder, a role that has seen many awards come her way.
For many, one of the most powerful scenes on television was the one where Annalise removes her wig and makeup. She fought to show this vulnerable side of the otherwise tough character. In fact, it was a condition of her taking the role. Her third Oscar nomination was for 2016’s Fences, and she is the favorite to win due to her outstanding performance. Upcoming projects include the films Widows, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, and an untitled Harriet Tubman biopic. Despite her success, though, Viola says she still sees many “downtrodden, mammy-ish” roles sent her way.