Viola Davis is now the most nominated Black actress in Oscars history

A portrait of Viola Davis.
Viola Davis’ best actress nomination for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is her fourth Oscar nod.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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Viola Davis’ best actress Oscar nomination Monday for her work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” makes her the most nominated Black actress in the history of the Academy Awards.

Davis won the Oscar for supporting actress in 2017 for “Fences,” after being nominated in that category in 2009 for her work in “Doubt.” She’s competed for best actress before, in 2012, for playing maid Aibileen Clark in “The Help.”

She and actress Octavia Spencer had previously been tied at three nominations each, while Whoopi Goldberg has a supporting actress win for “Ghost” and a best actress nomination for “The Color Purple.” Costume designer Ruth E. Carter was also a three-time nominee, with one historic win for “Black Panther” and nods for “Amistad” and “Malcolm X.”


A win would make Davis the only Black woman with multiple Oscars, and just the second Black woman to win a best actress Oscar. Halle Berry was the first to take that category, in 2002, for “Monster’s Ball.”

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Upping the stakes even higher this year: The best actress nomination of Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) makes it only the second time that two Black women will compete for that honor.

The last time it happened was 48 years ago, in 1973, when Cecily Tyson and Diana Ross were nominated for “Sounder” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” respectively. That year, Liza Minnelli won for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.”

Blues icon Ma Rainey, Davis told The Times in November, “was a woman who was unapologetic about her worth and her power. She’s constantly reminding people who she is, and that had a transformative effect on me too.

“That’s what happens a lot in our profession: You’re always hustling for your worth,” she said. “That’s what you’re constantly doing in this business and in this world, so it felt very liberating to play a woman who was not doing that.”

Viola Davis stars as blues legend Ma Rainey opposite Chadwick Boseman in the Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s celebrated play.

Nov. 19, 2020

Davis also spoke with Variety recently about the possibility that she’d ascend Monday to most nominated Black actress, saying, “For me, it’s a reflection of the lack of opportunities and access to opportunities people of color have had in this business. 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.”