Viola Davis has made history twice in 2021. In addition to having the most nominations for any Black actress at the Oscars, Davis now has the distinction of being the first Black actress to win two Lead Actress awards at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
In 2011, Viola Davis nominated for Best Actress for her work in The Help. She was up against Meryl Streep for the Iron Lady. Streep had already won Lead Actress and Supporting by then and was about to win her second Lead Actress Oscar. Streep still holds the record for the most nominations for Best Actress yet doesn’t come anywhere near Katharine Hepburn’s four Lead Actress wins. Viola Davis, however, now has two Lead Actress wins under her belt at SAG, something that has never happened for any Black Actress.
Chadwick Boseman won in Lead for Ma Rainey, as expected, Daniel Kaluuya in Supporting for Judas and the Black Messiah, as expected. Supporting Actress seemed up in the air but Yuh-Jung Youn won in Supporting for her work as the wise grandmother in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari.
But with Viola Davis winning for SAG we have a real drama on our hands here heading into the final weeks of the longest Oscar race in history. If it goes this way, the Academy will make history, either with all non-white or all female winners in three top categories – Acting, Writing, Directing.
Viola Davis has more than paid her dues in her long and prolific career. She should have won for The Help – not to shade the Queen Streep but Davis was better and deserved to win. At the time she was punished, I thought, for the controversy around The Help (seems like child’s play compared to today’s controversies, however) but she did win the SAG, along with Octavia Spencer who won for Supporting at both the SAG and the Oscars.
Davis has been acting since the 90s, primarily playing supporting characters, since very few feature films are anchored singularly around a female performance of color. Fences, The Help, and Doubt are all her strongest roles and all of her Oscar nominations, along with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Now she’s been nominated twice in supporting and twice in lead, making her the record holder for the most nominations of any Black actress in Oscar history.
Ma Rainey is a film that centers on the singer’s life and influence on American music. Chadwick Boseman’s death and the strength of his performance has over-shadowed Davis’ work in the film, at least where the Oscar is concerned. Andra Day won the Golden Globe for The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and Carey Mulligan has won the Critics Choice. Despite being eligible in a year where a small jury selected the nominees for BAFTA, none of these contenders have a BAFTA nod. The only Oscar crossover in the category is Frances McDormand for Nomadland.
This is the second time in Oscar history where two Black actresses were nominated in Lead. The last time was in 1972 and neither Cicely Tyson for Sounder nor Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues picked up a win. Halle Berry remains the only Black actress to win in the category back in 2001, twenty years ago. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years but it has.
If any year should bring in a win for a Black actress it should be this one. Voters will choose the one they think gave the best performance but they will also be anxious to right the wrongs of the past and break the streak of only one Black actress winning in 93 years of Oscar history. The question is, which of these two performances will win the most votes?
Going by the nominations, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has more momentum heading into the race. It is already winning Best Actor walking in the door, and it seems poised to win the Hairstyling and Makeup and maybe Costumes. And with Production Design that makes up five total nominations. And potentially three wins. By contrast, The United States vs. Billie Holiday has just the one nomination. Given the strength of Boseman and Davis having just won the SAG seems to be the right ingredients for Davis to win the Oscar.
But my friends, it’s a cliffhanger. We wanted a surprise category and we got one surprise category.
Meanwhile, Promising Young Woman is still a threat, though after losing both the Globe and the SAG, in this year specifically, it’s hard to see how Mulligan pulls through an 11th hour surprise. But anything is possible given the unpredictability of this season.
The other three categories appear to be mostly set, at least Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Probably Supporting Actress. That just leaves Best Actress.
The SAG Awards ceremony went by in a flash. It was well done, though, I think. They seem to know it was time to make it quick and get off stage.