Why Are So Many People BIG MAD About Viola Davis’ Oscar Acceptance Speech?

Let’s get one thing straight right out the gate: Viola Davis is a walking, talking acting masterclass. I will brook no opposition. I mean, did you SEE this scene from How to Get Away with Murder? That, in my opinion, sealed her 2015 Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Shoot, they would have given her a second one for the rest of her work that season if it was allowed. I watched that scene while giving her a standing ovation. I had chills. Queen Viola is phenomenal and peerless and regal and amazing, and she finally won an Academy Award last night for her work in the movie Fences. (Let us not even go into the fact that she should have been in the Best Actress category, not Best Supporting Actress.)

Black excellence personified, tbh (Collage from @fyeahtgawm on Twitter)

I was ready to fight somebody if anyone else’s name had been called when Mark Rylance opened the envelope last night, because in my opinion, nobody deserved that Oscar like she did. No. Bo. Dy. I lost my whole entire mind when her name was announced, and I screamed so much that I couldn’t even pay attention to her acceptance speech properly. (I’m also sure my neighbours now hate my guts, especially after my behaviour during last year’s Olympics. Sorry, not sorry.) You can find the full transcript of her speech at Refinery29, but here are the beautiful words I want to focus on:

“You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place. And that’s the graveyard. People ask me all the time: ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big, and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”

When I watched it over again, I had tears in my eyes at the significance of these words. She is absolutely right. Every single word she said here was on point, and I felt it was the perfect culmination of all the glorious speeches she has given over the course of this awards season as she collected trophies and statuettes left, right, centre and overseas. Viola has consistently praised the work of playwright August Wilson – whose words the cast of Fences brought to magnificent life – for telling the stories of the ordinary, everyday black man and woman in America, for elevating their lives to the level of must-see events. Every human life is a story of meaning and value, but black people hardly get to see the minutiae of our lives reflected in film (and indeed, the wider media landscape) that way. We either have to be extraordinary, or fall into familiar tropes of slavery, drugs and prostitution and violence.

What Viola was saying in her speech is that it’s important – necessary – to honour the simple humanness of everyday, ordinary (black) people and not let the value of their lives die as they pass on and fade to memory. And the way this is done is through art, by artists, whether they be singers, painters, dancers, actors or filmmakers. But some people are up in arms about this line, “I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” They see it as narcissistic, delusional and out of touch, and how dare she, when doctors save lives every day and teachers mould lives every day and so on, so forth. I wonder if these Bitter Bettys and Bitter Benjamins even heard the rest of the speech before she got to that line? Did they hear anything she has said all season long? There is nothing self-aggrandising in this speech. Nothing, as far as I can see, that says or even suggests that the arts is the only professional area in which people can live their lives, as some think she meant. And I don’t even get the comments about “well, you’re rich, so of course you can afford to live your life.” Sir. Ma’am. No. 😒

Art and artist: Margot Lee Shetterly, the author who brought the Hidden Figures story to life. (William Morrow/Aran Shetterly)

I want to personally find and shake some sense into everyone who sees it this way, because obviously, reading and comprehension skills are dying breeds. Riddle me this: Who explores what it means to be human, in all its beauty and ugliness, through their work? Artists. Who celebrates people’s lives by telling their stories, remembering them, immortalising them in song, or a movie, or even a painting? Artists. Who brings to life and the public consciousness the stories of forgotten or unsung heroes, or the everyman, or those on the margins of society that the average person couldn’t care less about, but whose stories and lives also have value? ARTISTS. Art is made and showcased on a grand scale in movies and TV shows, or small ways like community theatre plays, or even smaller ways like when your kids put on little plays in the living room, or make up angsty songs about teen life, or when you pass on family history via oral storytelling. Art is not something Hollywood owns. In no way, shape or form did she say or imply that other professions have less value, but some folks just live to take offence and play the victim, and it’s tired as hell.

Look at Hidden Figures, (which I was highkey rooting for to win Best Picture, and I still cannot believe it didn’t win anything. Travesty!) Who knew about these women’s lives outside of their families and some members of the NASA community, and maybe one or two other people in the places where they lived? If Margot Lee Shetterly hadn’t written a book (art!), and it wasn’t turned into a movie (art!), and the roles of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan weren’t played by actresses (artists!), their contribution to America’s achievements in the space race might have been lost for all eternity. I know I swelled with pride seeing Mrs Johnson on that Oscars stage, and I wished the other ladies had been able to live to see their stories told, their contributions accorded the value they deserved. Art made that possible, ladies and gentleman, and that is all Viola was saying in her speech. I don’t think it was that hard to understand, but maybe I got it immediately because I’m an artist, too. Writing is what I do, and I’m presently trying to figure out the best way to use my words to celebrate the life of someone who was near and dear to me, but is no more. I consider myself her memory keeper, and I will not let her life go unheralded.

While we’re here, when do we get to see THIS Viola Davis on our screens, Mr DeMille? (Images: Dewey Nicks for The Oprah Magazine, 2009)

I will not tolerate anyone trying to rain on the Queen’s parade as she celebrates her first Oscar win. It is all I can do to stop myself from wading into comments sections and having strong words with these deliberately obtuse folks. iCannot and iWillNot on this good day. Let Viola live, y’all. Read or listen to things with a mind to understand, and then extract meaning BEFORE you let of itchy fingers fly across keyboards to put your ignorance on international display. If you don’t understand what someone has said, ask. Maybe someone in the comments section will be nice enough to not call you names and give a plausible explanation.

Viva Viola, and may this Oscar be only her first. And may she write her memoirs or some other book and narrate the audio version so that she can win a Grammy and get to that well deserved EGOT status. Or a songwriter can sample one of her speeches in a song so she can get writing cred and that song win a Grammy. I don’t care how it happens, I just want it done. Please and thanks!

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