Viola Davis’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress began with a thanks to the Academy and this observation: “You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered.”
Pause. Some viewers may have felt a queasy pang. Was the Fences actress about to give a sequel to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech? Was the next line going to be “this room,” so as to stand up for the presidentially denounced entertainment industry, so as to preach for truth and inclusion, so as to spark another skirmish about whether Hollywood is too self-regarding?
No. The next line: “One place, and that’s the graveyard.”
Whew. Davis’s speech quickly went viral and received wide acclaim for a lot of reasons, and prime among them was simply good writing. She opened with a question and gave an answer few would have guessed. She exploited the power of surprise, a power demonstrated amply elsewhere at the Oscars.
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The speech also made self-evident why Davis deserves an Oscar. She seemed to be heaving with emotion, almost out of breath, and yet her words were clear and her sentences deftly paced. She gestured with the precision of her How to Get Away With Murder character Annalise Keating in law lecture, yet she showed the rawness of feeling that Mrs. Miller had in Doubt. But this was not acting. Or if it was, it was so good as to not seem like it. Which is, as Leonardo DiCaprio said from the stage elsewhere in the night, the definition of great acting.
Most remarkable: the speech’s content. Typically, memorable Oscar acceptances make explicit political points, feature gaffes, or mark milestones. But Davis’s commanded attention through the mere discussion of art, as well as through specific, heartfelt shoutouts 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 the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, 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 black working-class family whose members aren’t famous, who simply strive and spar against the backdrop of society and history. Wilson “exhumed and exalted the ordinary people,” Davis said; his story was “about people, and words, and life, and forgiveness, and grace.”
But the resonance with other themes of the night, and the era, was also unmissable. The Best Picture nominees included many tales of the culturally invisible and frustrated: post-recession Texans bereft of opportunity in Hell or High Water, low-level NASA mathematicians mostly forgotten by history in Hidden Figures, orphans and destitute families in India in Lion. Most notably, Best Picture winner Moonlight unspooled the tale of a poor black gay man simply surviving, an ordinary life of the sort that is portrayed so infrequently as to seem extraordinary.
So there is, in fact, politics here, though subtle. In the context of conversations about diversity and inclusion at the Oscars and in America more generally, Davis’s praise of stories about common people of thwarted dreams necessarily has a political meaning: Portraying previously unportrayed struggles means that lives other than white, straight, well-off, and/or male matter.
The point was reinforced, lightly, as she thanked her sisters, remembering, “We were rich white women in the tea party games.” They played as white and wealthy, perhaps, because that was what society had told them to fantasize about. Davis has shown the power of offering alternatives.