Viola Davis makes Oscars history with Best Actress nomination for queer epic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Josh Milton
·4-min read

Viola Davis made history as the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced, breaking her own record as the Academy’s most-nominated Black actress.

Davis said she was “absolutely thrilled” to be nominated for Best Actress for her turn as bisexual blues singer Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She becomes the first Black woman to achieve four nominations, an achievement she says reflects more on Hollywood’s shortcomings than anything else.

“For me, it’s a reflection of the lack of opportunities and access to opportunities people of colour have had in this business,” Davis told Variety ahead of the historic nomination.

“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 colour.”

Davis, 55, is certainly used to winning awards, having already become the first Black woman to achieve the “triple crown of acting” – an Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy Award and two Tony Awards.

Davis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Fences in 2017. She’s also been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Doubt andBest Actress for The Help.

She had long been tied with Octavia Spencer as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in history. Denzel Washington remains the most-nominated Black performer of all time with eight Oscar nominations.

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Her countless fans, of course, were ecstatic.

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Viola Davis relished playing ‘big, bisexual, dark-skinned’ blues icon Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on a 1982 play by pioneering playwright August Wilson, is set during a tense recording session in Chicago, Illinois.

Rainey, the revered “mother of the blues“, dazzled audiences with her straight-talking sets and smouldering charm. The contralto belted out songs about her bisexuality some four decades before the Stonewall uprising thrust LGBT+ issues into the mainstream. Rainey was even once cornered by the Chicago police for provocatively dancing with two women on-stage.

Davis told the BBC last year how she found freedom in playing Rainey, a kind of character rarely seen in an industry where Black lives and stories are so often “defined by white people”.

She said: “When you find a woman like Ma Rainey – she’s big, she is bisexual, she’s dark-skinned – she’s all those things.

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (David Lee/Netflix)

“Usually a character like that is just funny, she’s just big, Black and funny. That’s it. That, or she’s uber maternal.”

As the red carpets were rolled up and thrown into storage last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, Academy Awards organisers made a seismic pledge to become more inclusive.

Indeed, the body that hands out the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, announced new standards that mean filmmakers must meet on and off-camera inclusion quota that includes LGBT+ representation.

The rules, which will apply from 2024 onwards, signal a desire to change from one of the most influential awards ceremonies long criticised as too straight, white and male.

The 93rd Academy Awards will be held 25 April.