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World Changer of the Month — December 2023: Viola Davis



Viola Davis was born August 11, 1965, in Saint Matthews, South Carolina, to father Dan, a horse groomer and trainer, and mother Mae Alice, who, in addition to working as a domestic and factory worker, was also a civil rights and welfare reform activist. The family moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island while Viola was an infant. Growing up in abject poverty, her parents’ income was frequently insufficient to support the family. School lunches were often her only meal of the day.


Davis fell in love with acting at the age of six, when she saw Cicely Tyson in a television adaptation of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Inspired, Davis soon began acting in school productions and theater competitions. After high school, she enrolled at Rhode Island College, where she majored in theater and graduated in 1988. She proceeded to the Young People's School for the Performing Arts in Rhode Island on scholarship before attending the Juilliard School, graduating in 1994.


In 1996, Davis made her Broadway debut in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, in which she played the long-suffering paramour of a musician recently released from prison, a performance that earned her a Tony Award nomination. She made her film debut the same year with a bit part in the drama The Substance of Fire. In 1999 Davis played opposite Phylicia Rashad in the Off-Broadway drama Everybody’s Ruby, based on writer Zora Neale Hurston’s investigation of a murder.


Davis has been acting for nearly three decades and her filmography is one of the most impressive in Hollywood. To date, she has 96 acting credits and 27 producing credits. She has received four Academy Award nominations, winning in 2016 for her role in Fences.  She has received seven Golden Globe Award nominations, again winning in 2016 for her role in Fences. She has received five Emmy Award nominations, winning in 2015 for her role in How to Get Away with Murder. She has received 10 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, winning in 2011 for her role in The Help, 2014 and 2015 for her role in How to Get Away with Murder, 2016 for her role in Fences, and 2020 for her role in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. She has received three Tony Award nominations, winning in 2001 for her role in King Hedley II, and in 2010 for her role in Fences. Davis’s memoir, Finding Me, was published in 2022. The following year she won a Grammy for the audio version of the book. With that award, she achieved “EGOT” (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) status.


In addition to her acting pursuits, Davis is a philanthropist. She has a passion for giving back and has become an advocate for social justice and equality for women of color in Hollywood.  As a first generation college student, she highly values access to education. As such, she donated funds to her hometown public library in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to assist in preventing its closure due to a lack of city funding in 2011. She donated to her alma mater, Central Falls High School, to support its theater program in 2018. And since 2014, she has collaborated with the Hunger Is campaign to help eradicate childhood hunger across America by starting the $30K in 30 Days Project with the organization.


Davis has been quoted as saying, “The reason I became an actress is because I wanted my acting to reflect life as it is. I want to put truth on the screen. I want real women to see real women on the screen.” Known for her precise, controlled performances and her regal presence, Davis has been considered one of the best actresses of our time.


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