With her Oscar nomination for Best Actress with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Viola Davis has officially become the most nominated Black actress in the history of the Academy Awards. Davis now boasts four career Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actress for “Doubt,” Best Supporting Actress for “Fences,” Best Actress for “The Help,” and Best Actress for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Davis won the Oscar for “Fences.”
Prior to the 2021 Oscar nominations announcement, Davis had been tied with friend and co-star Octavia Spencer as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in history. Spencer has three Best Supporting Actress nominations under her belt thanks to “The Help,” “Hidden Figures,” and “The Shape of Water.” Spencer won the Oscar for “The Help.” Davis was widely expected to become the Oscars’ most nominated Black actress after her performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” picked up nominations from the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Outside of Davis and Spencer, Whoopi Goldberg is the only other Black actress with more than one competitive Oscar nomination. Goldberg was nominated for Best Actress with “The Color Purple” and won Best Supporting Actress with “Ghost.” The late Cicely Tyson has an honorary Academy Award, given to her in 2018, and a Best Actress nomination for “Sounder.”
In an interview with Variety last month, Davis expressed bittersweet emotions over the prospect of becoming the most-nominated Black actress in Oscars history. As Davis explained, “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.”
“There are a lot of white actresses out there, who are fairly young — in their 20s or 30s, who have been to the Academy Awards just as many times as me or more than me,” Davis said later in the interview. “It is a reflection of their talent — but it’s also a reflection of their opportunities. That’s what it is. It’s a reflection of how they had the chance — those three, four or five roles that were so good that brought them to that place. [Being a Black actress] is like having a fabulous body, but not having the right clothes to show it off.”
Davis is nominated for Best Actress in 2021 opposite Andra Day, whose performance as Billie Holiday in Lee Daniels’ “The People vs. Billie Holiday” is also in contention for the Academy Award. That Davis and Day are nominated together makes 2021 just the second year in Oscars history where two Black women have been nominated for Best Actress in a single year. The last and previously-only time two Black women competed for Best Actress was at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, where Cecily Tyson (“Sounder”) and Diana Ross (“Lady Sings the Blues”) were nominated together.
The 2021 Academy Awards will take place Sunday, April 25.