Viola Davis and The Oscars: Anatomy Of A Best Actress Snub

Academy Award nominee Viola Davis, star of the controversial film, The Help, went home empty-handed last night after losing the Best Actress Oscar to her acting idol, Meryl Streep—and I can’t say I’m surprised.

As much as I thought Viola deserved the award for her star turn as Abileen Clark, the maid who quietly and defiantly raised her voice to tell the stories of “the help” in racist Mississippi, one need only consider the source of the Oscars, the constant bitching of black folk mad that the Academy Awards was considering awarding a black woman for portraying a maid, and Viola’s own outspoken statements about Hollywood’s race issue to understand why she lost last night.The voting members, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation released last week, is 94 percent white, 77 percent male and 86 percent over the age of 50—and I’m guessing they didn’t want to be bothered with all the backlash that inevitably would have come from outspoken black intellectuals like Melissa Harris-Perry and James McBride, who over the past weeks have gone hard against the Academy and The Help itself for watering down the abject abuse and danger maids faced at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, and for, 40 years after Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal as a maid, considering handing over yet another statuette to a black woman for her portrayal as… a maid.

But perhaps it was Viola herself who most hurt her chances of winning Best Actress when, during her months-long Academy Award campaign, she made a point of taking a stand and lifting her voice about what black actresses face in the still lily-white Hollywood. Every time she found herself in front of a microphone, Viola reminded all those within the sound of her voice that times are still hard for black girls in Hollywood, where roles for African American women with dark skin and outside-the-mainstream beauty are sparse, underdeveloped, and meant solely to help white actors and actresses shine. She made a point, though, of acknowledging that despite Hollywood’s faults—despite the odds—a black actress who masters her craft can make any portrayal, whether it’s as a maid, a crack addict, a wise BFF or a love-starved single mother who doubles as the president, will be masterful at her job.

In other words, Viola Davis didn’t play the game; she called Hollywood on its bull, reminded everyone that she’s total badass at what she does, and showed up on the red carpet as her beautiful, natural self—chocolate, glistening and wearing her short, red-tinted afro, with her beautiful, chocolate glistening husband at her side. And honestly, I couldn’t be more proud of her for lifting her voice, being sure of her talent and beauty and insisting that we all get on board and accept her for being exactly who she is.

Of course, all the hollering and screaming from black folk and the truth serum from Viola Davis probably made it really easy for the Academy’s mostly white, mostly male, mostly old voting members to hand another statuette to Meryl Streep, who bested Davis last night for the Best Actress award for her portrayal as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. This takes nothing away from Streep, who is an incredible actress—one Davis says is her absolute favorite. But don’t be fooled: the politics of the Academy Awards campaigning is no joke, and perhaps it’s just easier to hand a less high-profile Oscar to a black woman who talks boob lifts and graciousness (Octavia Spencer, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Minnie” in The Help) than it is to give an Academy Award to a black actress like Davis, who minces no words and tells it like it is. Here’s to hoping that Viola gets to keep doing the latter—and shining in roles that not only honor her craft but represent black women well on Hollywood’s big screens.


1. “The Help” Star Viola Davis Rocks Natural Hair In LA Times Mag And Talks Black Women In Film
2. I Was “The Help” And My Experience Taught Me To Dream BIG
3. Check Out the New Trailer For “The Help,” Featuring Viola Davis
4. Viola Davis & Sandra Bullock’s Kids Sitting In a Tree…

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I definitely understand and mostly agree with your viewpoint. I believe, however, that Streep’s flawless portrayal of Margaret Thatcher made her the industry’s favorite right off the rip. It was like the year “Thriller” came out: there were a lot of great albums that year, but Mike was just head and shoulders above everyone else and was not going to be denied. Streep was that person in 2011.

    Having said that, there have many been times when politics invaded the Academy process and a person wins over a more deserving actor or actress. Viola’s politics did not help her chances, for sure.

  2. I totally agree with your view. Viola Davis was ‘snubbed’, punished for her outspoken nature. The ‘academy’ still views female actors (not ‘actresses’)–as arm candy. They are fine with reruns of ‘we are the world’ (the 80’s answer to kumbaya)–but cannot face the ugly truths of racism and sexism. Even though women are some 53% of the general population–we continually receive ‘short shrift’ from Hollywood. Perhaps the academy’s racist and sexist tendencies are the REASON movies are dying. I am sick and tired of witnessing ‘celebutants’ discuss the trivialities of ‘boob lifts’ and the false pride associated with ‘wearing a size 0.’ I would conclude that the intellect used to express the ‘wearing a size zero’ dress–matches the overall IQ of the academy–namely ZERO.

  3. Oh wow, you nailed this HARD, and I totally agree with you. I think Octavia is a terrific actress, but she is definitely playing the game, down to not having a prepared speech, and instead going with the flabbergasted, stunned, awww, isn’t she precious? routine usually preserved for the young white starlets. If Viola had won, we know she was gonna give a grown ass, historically relevant, proud black, and life affirming speech. I’m not mad at Octavia, but I see her. 🙂

  4. Wow, this was such a good post I’m going to repost it on my blog (giving you all the credit of course!!)

    I think you said everything that everyone else was thinking. I’m glad Viola spoke her mind and didn’t kowtow just for a statuette.

  5. I was highly upset about all of it call me naive but, I actually thought she was going to win. I think it is easier for Meryl Streep because all the best roles are made for her and those like her. I’m not taking away from her acting I think it is her gift. But, I think that they should keep in mind how rare these opportunities are for Afr. Amer. actors which offers them extremely limited chances to show their true ability. If I can’t compete head to head with the best I don’t feel I truly deserve to be called the best. If you win the hand with a stacked deck can you really say you won? I feel unless all of the actors have a equal ability to show their skills and then are judges solely on that you haven’t really chosen the best. I think this is what turns so many people off from award shows like this. Maybe we tune in long enough to see who is wearing what and then on to something more interesting.

  6. On the other hand, it’s completely possible voters swooned to the idea that Meryl Streep’s performance was the more technically demanding one. Right or not, externally flashy turns full of physical ticks, wigs, odd makeup, and tongue-twisting accents always pull in more awards. Streep was also playing a real person, so barely-informed voters could easily ooh-and-ah over how perfectly she nailed it- I’ve written screenplays for major film studios, and believe me when I tell you, they are not bastions of nuanced thought housing experts in the art of film. They’re mainly hack shops with high salaries. Beyond that, this isn’t the first time an actor who everyone expected to win didn’t win, not by a long shot. Plus, this is MERYL STREEP we’re talking about here!! She’s considered by many – including, it’s easy to imagine, Viola Davis – to be one of the greatest actresses in movie history. It’s not like they handed it to Cameron Diaz or Demi Moore and Davis walked away empty-handed. Davis was more moving than Streep this time around, but this is hardly the mind-boggling travesty everyone’s making it out to be. (Ask Sir Ian McKellen how he felt when he lost to Roberto Benigni.) Beyond that, these performers aren’t “losing” anything. They just didn’t get a randomly voted-on trophy that people forget about within a year. Everyone take a chill pill.

  7. You are spot on here. Hollywood is just as political as anywhere else, and up to this point, the rule is no more than two, Oscars that is. Meryl Streep or not. Something else was afoot. The reviews of “The Iron Maiden” were so-so. They weren’t unanimously stellar. The movie wasn’t widely seen as a knock out punch the way her umpteen other Oscar performances were. But back to Viola Davis– I recently watched her in a series of episodes of “United States of Tara” and I truly saw her superb talent, let alone her scene stealing 10 minutes in “Doubt” (she stole that movie from Meryl Streep, no less). As an Oscar nominated actress who knows what’s up, and everyone else knows what went down this round, she’ll get the freedom to put more brown faces out there, and I’ll be waiting and watching.

  8. True, to some extent. But just two years ago Mo’nique did even less campaigning, said some of the same things, and still came away with the Best Supporting Actress statuette. African-American women have now won two of the last three awards in that category. Also, the news that the Academy is overwhelmingly white, male and old isn’t exactly jaw-dropping — it’s been like that for years. It also doesn’t explain why Davis was the overwhelming FAVORITE by Oscar pickers. Meryl Streep winning was an UPSET, remember? I tend to think that the vehicle was the big problem. The Help was based on a summer bestseller. A fun book with some serious overtones, but clearly not primarily serious. The biggest laugh in the movie was basically a bathroom joke. The Academy tends not to award comedy in its big awards, even dramedy which hurt The Descendants, I think. It takes itself seriously. So the vehicle wasn’t serious enough. The Help wasn’t anywhere close to winning Best Picture I don’t think. Also, it might have been viewed as an ensemble film. In fact, it won a best ensemble award at SAG. Davis and Spencer won individual awards too, but Davis’ role might have been viewed by the Academy as not really the lead — Emma Stone’s character was. Another factor might be, as already mentioned, Davis’ character. Playing a maid probably wouldn’t endear to the few African-Americans there are in the Academy. Davis is an extremely good actress though, so hopefully she’ll play the lead in a more prestigious pic and get the nod next time — now they owe her.

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