Viola Davis Got the Wrong Award

By Miles Johnson

Here are all of the actors and actresses who have won a competitive Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award—acting’s “Triple Crown”:

Vanessa Redgrave, Anne Bancroft, Jessica Lange, Frances McDormand, Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Geoffrey Rush, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Irons, Jessica Tandy, Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton, Rita Moreno, Jack Albertson, Paul Scofield, Melvyn Douglas, Shirley Booth, Ingrid Bergman, Thomas Mitchell, Helen Hayes, Viola Davis.

Here are all of the Black actors or actresses who have won the Triple Crown:

Viola Davis.

Davis, for her portrayal of Rose Maxson in Fences, an adaptation of August WIlson’s play of the same name, took home the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. The win was both well-deserved for Davis, and long overdue for all the Black actors and actresses before her. The only problem here—and it is perhaps a small one—is that there was absolutely nothing “supporting” about Davis’s role in Fences. Rose Maxson drove the film both thematically and in terms of plot. Washington’s character may have been the protagonist, but Fences is unmistakably powered by Viola Davis.

Take for example an early scene in which Lyons, one of Maxson’s sons (not by Rose), asks his father for ten dollars. This scene is subtly laced with themes of fatherhood and conventional notions of black masculinity. Neither would be made clear to the viewer, however, without Rose’s intermittent dialogue, which signals that she is not Lyon’s mother. It is Rose who eventually coaxes the $10 from Troy, and it is through Rose that we begin to understand the fractured relationship between Troy and Lyons.

Or consider the instance in which Troy admits that he signed paperwork committing his brother Gabriel to a mental institution, only because he signed a contract that he could not read. There are centuries of vestigial oppression stemming from the fact that literacy was met with severe punishment or death for enslaved Black people. It is Rose who confronts Troy about his mistake, and despite Troy at first assuring her that he would never betray his brother this way, it is Rose who presses on, eventually showing him his error. This is an emotionally fraught and gripping scene, and the grief and sadness felt for both Gabriel and Troy is not possible without Rose.

Or best of all, examine Rose’s final monologue. After Troy’s death, it is Rose who ultimately reconciles with his son Cory, not Troy. It is Rose, not Troy, who explains the complication and tumult within Troy that (good excuse or not) fueled his mistreatment of his son. Troy’s last interaction with Cory is one of both physical and emotional violence. Rose provides the care, tenderness, yes, but also the matter-of-fact explanation of why Troy did what he did. Certainly, this is not to excuse the abuse Cory felt from his father, but the circumstances of being Black, poor, and uneducated in a world that thrives on the exploitation of the Black, poor, and uneducated are enough to warp even the strongest of relationships. Rose, not Troy, provides this must needed atonement—something Troy is literally unable to do.

If Viola Davis supported anything, it was the weight of Fences as a whole. Rose was as necessary to Troy’s well-being as Davis was to the well-being of the film. Perhaps the connotation of supporting actors and actresses should change to not imply a secondary or sidekick status. Davis, the only Black performer to ever achieve the Triple Crown (with two Tonys, to boot), indeed deserved every bit of the award she won—but, as is often the case with Black women, was deserving of even more than she was given.