Viola Davis’ acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress began with a thank you to the Academy and this observation: “You know, there is a place where all the people with the greatest potential come together.”
Break. Some viewers may have felt a twinge of nausea. That fences actress about to give a sequel to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech? Was the next line going to be “this room,” to defend the entertainment industry denounced by the president, to preach truth and inclusivity, to spark another skirmish over whether Hollywood is too selfish?
No. The next line: “A place, and that is the cemetery.”
wow Davis’ speech quickly went viral and received high praise for many reasons, chief among them being simply good writing. She opened with a question and gave an answer that few would have guessed. She harnessed the power of surprise, a power amply demonstrated elsewhere at the Oscars.
— The Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) February 27, 2017
The speech also made it clear why Davis deserved an Oscar. She seemed to throb with excitement, almost out of breath, and yet his words were clear and his sentences had a deft rhythm. She gestured with the precision of her How to get away with murder Annalize Keating at the law conference, however, showed the rawness of the feelings that Ms. Miller had in double. But this was not acting. Or if it was, it was so good that it didn’t look like it. Which is, as Leonardo DiCaprio said from the stage elsewhere in the evening, the definition of a great performance.
The most remarkable: the content of the speech. Memorable Oscar acceptances typically make explicit political points, feature mistakes, or mark milestones. But Davis drew attention through mere discussion of art, as well as through specific and heartfelt greetings to colleagues and loved ones.
“People ask me all the time, ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?'” she said. “And I say, exhume those bodies, exhume those stories. The stories of people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams come true, people who fell in love and lost. I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
The resonance with Davis’s work was obvious: fences is based on August Wilson’s play about a 1950s working-class black family whose members are not famous, who simply struggle and fight within the context of society and history. Wilson “exhumed and exhumed the common people,” Davis said; his story was “about people, words, life, forgiveness and grace.”
But the resonance with other themes of the night, and of the time, was also unmissable. The Best Picture nominees included many stories of culturally invisible and frustrated people: post-recession Texans deprived of opportunities in Against all oddsNASA low-level mathematicians mostly forgotten by history in hidden figuresorphans and destitute families in India in Lion. Notably, winner of Best Picture Moonlight Unspooled the story of a poor black gay man who just gets by, an ordinary life of the kind that is portrayed so infrequently that it seems extraordinary.
So, in fact, there is politics here, albeit a subtle one. In the context of conversations about diversity and inclusion at the Oscars and in America in general, Davis’s praise of stories about ordinary people with shattered dreams necessarily has a political meaning: portraying struggles that have not been portrayed before means that the lives of they are not white, heterosexual, well off. and/or masculine matter.
The point was lightly reinforced when she thanked her sisters, recalling: “We were rich white women at tea party games..” They played white and rich, perhaps because society had told them to fantasize. Davis has shown the power of offering alternatives.