Here’s the complicated thing about that frequently-repeated stat about Viola Davis and all her Oscar nominations. In case you hadn’t heard, she is the most-nominated Black actress in history, with four. And as she has shared, and I’m paraphrasing, if she’s getting nominated all the time, it also means that there are not enough opportunities for other Black actresses. But also? Viola Davis’s “history-making” four nominations is still two less than Amy Adams’s six. And Amy’s six nominations are nowhere near the actress with the most nominations, Meryl Streep who has been nominated 21 times. Viola’s four nominations are just one more than Frances McDormand’s three WINS. So it’s not that Viola shouldn’t be revered – of course she should be – but holding up her Oscar nominations like it’s proof that the industry has adequately celebrated her is ignoring the complete picture.
That said, as Viola has said time and again, she knows her worth. And it certainly isn’t determined by the Oscars. Viola wasn’t just there for herself last night. She was there as a member of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which won the Oscars for Best Costume Design for Ann Roth and Best Makeup and Hairstyling for Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson, and Sergio Lopez-Rivera. Mia and Jamika became the first Black women to win in the category. And this is noteworthy because it’s a skillset that has long been underappreciated. Vulture published a piece last week on the work they put into shaping Viola’s performance in the film and it’s not just eyeshadow and a hot iron. This is well worth your read to learn how they sourced their materials, how they made those wigs, how their own research on Ma Rainey, her desires, ambitions, insecurities, frustrations, and her fight, informed how they designed her presentation.
Black women’s hair and makeup has often been a secondary, even tertiary consideration in the entertainment and fashion industries. There are so many times I’ve been on set with a Black colleague when their hair and their skin tones aren’t taken into consideration before they go on camera. I imagine that’s part of what Mia and Jamika were feeling last night when their work was honoured – because it’s work that has historically not seen much opportunity and it’s work for a community that has often felt othered.
As for how Viola looked last night – she wore a custom Alexander McQueen dress designed by Sarah Burton. Her longtime stylist Elizabeth Stewart told Vogue that Viola specifically wanted to wear white, and the gown took hours to make with the intricate cuts and the beading. You’ll note, she’s actually wearing a corset underneath that matches her skin tone. And they achieved that because Viola’s makeup artist, Autumn Moultrie, worked with the McQueen atelier to get the shade exactly right, sending swatches back and forth and matching it to the base colours that Autumn uses on her skin. When there’s that much effort involved…YES, by all means, let’s talk about the outfit!