Citation for Viola Davis
Viola Davis. You are an actor. A producer. A winner of awards. A humanitarian leading the way. We marvel at your talent — how you deftly embody role after role while holding true to your authentic self.
It wasn’t exactly an easy debut. South Carolina in the mid-1960s. You were born on your grandmother’s farm (a former slave plantation), the second youngest of six. There was a move to Rhode Island when you were an infant, where your father trained horses and your mother cleaned houses. Hunger was a reliable companion, and putting on plays was a way to escape.
You continued to perform — in high school, at Rhode Island College, and then Juilliard — learning to make each character your own, and slowly carving out space in yet another harsh realm — the stage and the screen for women, and especially women of color.
We think about your 2008 breakout role in Doubt, a film in which a single scene earned you an Oscar nomination. One eight-minute scene, shared with Meryl Streep, in which to create an entire life. The result of this portrait is so measured and so intimate that it’s impossible to forget. When your character, Mrs. Miller, says this about her son, “You accept what you got to accept and you work with it,” we profoundly understand her dilemma.
We think about Rose Maxson in Fences, the deeply vulnerable wife of Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson. She was tested in every aspect of a difficult life. In both the film and on Broadway, you delivered August Wilson’s testimony to betrayal and forgiveness with shattering honesty, courage, and love.
We think about the enigmatic defense attorney and law professor Annalise Keating over five seasons of “How to Get Away with Murder.” From the start, you have delivered a female character who is unapologetic and seriously flawed, but one whose story is still very much worth telling.
For this, and so much more — for Amanda and Aibileen, Ruby and Tonya, Veronica and Eva — you have garnered loyal audiences, critical praise, and countless awards, including being the first black actress to win the triple crown of acting — Tony, Oscar, and Emmy. And with JuVee Productions, you and your husband, Julius Tennon, have furthered your commitment to telling never-before-told stories of those fighting to be seen.
We look to you to hear the voices of women like your mother. For our students to see a star with their skin and their hair. To know that more stories of women of color are being realized, by you and because of you. To witness your compassion for others and your deep pride in being an artist.
Viola Davis, if you can find a small space on your shelf of awards, it is my great honor to present you with the 2019 Barnard Medal of Distinction. You enrich the human experience for us all.