fb-pixel Skip to main content

Celebrating Viola Davis, a voice like no other

The newly crowned EGOT — who has deep roots in Rhode Island — commands with grit and grace on stage, page, and screen

Viola Davis speaks onstage during the 65th Grammy Awards at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

“Viola Davis just got EGOTed.”

I was nursing a pint of Guinness at The Norseman pub in Dublin when that text message from a friend hit my phone on Sunday. I’d completely forgotten the Grammys were on, but I was aware that Viola Davis was up for an award in the best audio book, narration, and storytelling recording category. Her competition included Oscar and Grammy winners Questlove and Jamie Foxx, almost-EGOT Lin-Manuel Miranda, and actual EGOT Mel Brooks.

In a way, Viola Davis was on vacation with me. I’d just finished the audiobook of her 2022 memoir, “Finding Me” on the plane ride to the Emerald Isle. Listening to Davis tell her life story while I sat on a darkened plane on an overnight trip across the pond was an unforgettable experience. She read her words with the actorly skill we expect, delivering an often harrowing and occasionally hilarious performance.

"Finding Me" by Viola Davis. HarperCollins

With her Grammy win, Davis accomplishes a rare honor shared only by 17 other people: She won an Emmy, an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Tony. Actually, Davis has two Tonys, for “King Hedley II,” in 2001, and the Denzel Washington revival of “Fences,” in 2010, both August Wilson plays. She was also Tony-nominated for Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.” The film version of “Fences” won her the Oscar for best supporting actress in 2017.


As a critic, I am often asked who my favorite working actors are. Davis is always one of the first names I say. She is one of our finest performers, both on stage and screens large and small. Nobody cries like Viola Davis — flowing rivers of tears fearlessly accompanied by rivulets of snot — and few can bend monologues to one’s will like she can.

Her flawless monologue in 2008’s “Doubt” steals that movie, no easy feat considering her scene partner is Meryl Streep playing a nun with an accent that makes her sound like Sister Bugs Bunny.


Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson and Viola Davis plays Rose Maxson in the 2016 film "Fences," directed by Washington. David Lee

Davis may be the only actor I’ve rooted for to win an Oscar for a role in a movie I unequivocally panned, 2011′s “The Help.” The movie couldn’t ruin her performance as maid Aibileen Clark. She brought a strong sense of dignity to a stereotypical role.

Wilson is a perfect match for Davis. I am a diehard fan of the late playwright, and since 1984′s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” it had been my mission to see all 10 plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle on Broadway. It took me 33 years to accomplish this feat. In 1996, 2001, and 2010, Davis was a part of my journey.

Additionally, I have seen every Broadway iteration of my favorite Wilson play, “The Piano Lesson,” and the original production of “Fences.” Like James Earl Jones, who originated the role Washington played in the revival and subsequent film, Viola Davis’s voice is a force of nature that vibrates through your entire body when your ears receive it live. It is regal even when filled with rage.

Winning a spoken-word Grammy should have been a given for Davis — just listen to her channel family members in her audiobook. If nothing else, the win is a nice clapback after she was snubbed by the Academy for some of the best work of her career in last year’s “The Woman King.”


Viola Davis and John Boyega in "The Woman King." Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures via AP/File

“I wrote this book to honor the 6-year-old Viola,” Davis said in her acceptance speech at the Grammys. “To honor her life, her joy, her trauma, everything.”

“Finding Me” tells us about “young Viola,” who lived with her parents and siblings in a rat-infested house in Central Falls, R.I. That “6-year-old Viola” becomes another character, one the older Davis repeatedly refers to in her narrative, including the moment when, as an adult, she questions a therapist’s advice to “reach back and give that little girl a hug” of support for making it through all she endured.

Davis is honest about her career struggles, and you can hear the righteous indignation in her voice as she recounts them. People didn’t know what to do with an actor who, in her words, was “a dark-skinned Black woman” who “wasn’t a size 2 and had a deep voice.”

After auditioning for the co-lead in Steven Bochco’s 2000 TV series “City of Angels,” an all-Black drama starring Blair Underwood, the feedback she was given was that her reading and her voice were “too quirky.”

“In reality, I wasn’t pretty enough,” she says in her book. “At this point, it was the story of my career.”

The moment she realizes she inherited that wonderful contralto from her grandmother is one of the most poignant stories Davis tells in “Finding Me.”

Viola Davis won an Emmy for her portrayal of Annalise Keating in "How to Get Away with Murder" on ABC. Mitch Haaseth/ABC

Davis did end up being cast in “City of Angels,” which ran for two seasons. Eventually, her TV work led her to play “How to Get Away with Murder”’s Annalise Keating, a character she says wouldn’t normally have been written for someone who looks like her. Keating was a complicated, often unlikable hot mess who inspired some memes and had a now-famous wig removal scene that dropped jaws in Black households everywhere. Davis received five Emmy nods and the one win that put the E in her EGOT.


“Finding Me” also reminds us that Davis’s tie to New England is a strong one. She repeatedly returned to the stage in Massachusetts, working in Newton and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where in 1999 she played in “A Raisin in the Sun” opposite Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Santiago-Hudson also adapted the film version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020), in which Davis had one of her best and most boisterous roles as the titular blues singer opposite the late Chadwick Boseman in his finest performance onscreen. (Lest we forget, she also played Boseman’s mama in the 2014 James Brown biopic “Get on Up.”)

In her 2017 Oscar speech, Davis said, “People ask me all the time, what stories do you want to tell, Viola?” With “Finding Me,” she finally tells her own, and the result is haunting and cathartic. That EGOT is just the icing on the cake.

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at odie.henderson@globe.com.